Keep post-secondary education accessible: students

University and college students in Newfoundland and Labrador are taking to social media ahead of provincial budget to make case for well-funded higher learning.

The Canadian Federation of Students’ Newfoundland and Labrador (CFS-NL) chapter has launched a social media campaign ahead of the 2016 provincial budget to remind the Liberal government that any funding cuts to post-secondary institutions resulting in higher tuition fees could limit students’ abilities to obtain an education and drive others out of the province, while deterring those considering moving to N.L. for school from coming altogether.

For two weeks CFS-NL has been pushing its “Students of Newfoundland and Labrador” campaign, which features photos of university students accompanied by quotes from them about their educational and financial circumstances and reasons why they chose to study in this province.

One image features a student from Corner Brook who says Memorial University’s low tuition fees allowed him to stay in the province instead of seeking out an education elsewhere.

Another features three students from outside the province who say they came to Newfoundland and Labrador because of the affordable tuition fees. 

A common theme running through the students’ experiences is that low post-secondary tuition fees in the province are helping them get an education and into the labour force without crippling debt.

Students of Newfoundland and Labrador

Students of Newfoundland and Labrador

“We hear from countless students who are struggling to make ends meet, who frequent the food bank or who have to work multiple jobs in order to pay for their education,” says CFS-NL Chair Travis Perry. “A tuition fee increase would not only make students’ lives much harder, it would mean many students would be shut out of post-secondary education all together.”

Freeze and grants significant, but barriers to accessible education still exist

Newfoundland and Labrador currently boasts some of the lowest tuition fees in Canada, thanks in large part to funding and a tuition freeze implemented by the provincial government in 1999.

The CFS has been largely successful in lobbying the government to maintain the freeze, but last year the Paul Davis Government cut funding to Memorial University by $20 million, forcing MUN to raise tuition fees by 30 percent for graduate students and medical school students while hiking on-campus residence fees by 30 percent.

In 2015 the Progressive Conservatives also invested in turning provincial government loans for post-secondary education into grants to provide students from the province with assistance in covering the cost of their education.

While the CFS lauded the move, Perry said at the time that since provincial loans or grants account for only 40 percent of post-secondary funding for students, many already qualify for the maximum amount of assistance and wouldn’t qualify for additional funding when their fees increase. “This means more of their grant and loan would be going to pay for tuition fees, so they would have less money for things like rent, groceries, childcare, or other costs of living. So the poorest, most vulnerable students would be the ones hit hardest by a tuition fee increase,” he said.

Following the decision by MUN’s Board of Regents last summer to hike tuition and residence fees, Liberal critic for Advanced Education and Skills Scott Reid told The Independent the Liberals had a “serious commitment” to maintain the freeze, and that affordable education is “part of the whole liberal philosophy of providing a quality of opportunity.” He said it’s important to the Liberals “that if people work hard you have an opportunity to get ahead.”

Three days later Liberal leader Dwight Ball announced during a CBC leaders’ debate that the Liberals would in fact consider raising tuition fees for students who came to Newfoundland and Labrador for their education. “First and foremost, we would continue the freeze for Newfoundland and Labrador students, those entering in Memorial University — that tuition freeze would be continued,” Ball said.

The CFS has consistently argued that maintaining low tuition fees for all students will benefit the province by attracting young people to Newfoundland and Labrador at a time when the province’s population is aging. A 2015 report by the CFS claimed that in 2009-2010 “it was found that international students studying in Newfoundland and Labrador spent on average $22,837 per year in the local economy on education, housing, meals and other goods and services for a combined $27.8 million a year.”

The report also claimed that since the introduction of the freeze, “out-of-province student enrolment has increased by 411 percent, while international student enrolment has increased by 350 percent,” and that a recent survey found that “more than 43 percent of out-of-province students and 71 percent of international students are still in Newfoundland and Labrador two years after graduating.”

Undoing progress?

Now, facing an estimated $2.5 billion deficit, as part of their austerity budget — to be handed down on Thursday — the Liberals may be getting ready to cut post-secondary funding further, which could result in tuition and other fee increases.

In an emailed statement to The Independent on Tuesday Advanced Education and Skills Minister Gerry Byrne said that while he has been mandated to “ensure affordability and accessibility of post-secondary education,” the “reality that this province…is facing significant fiscal challenges…requires the collective leadership and engagement of the public, and includes direct and open engagement with students and student leaders.”

Earlier this year Byrne met with student leaders at the Canadian Federation of Students NL’s annual general meeting in Corner Brook.

“The minister is well aware of the negative impact that a tuition fee hike will have on students’ lives and on the economic and social fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador. We hope he’s listened to what students have had to say,” says Perry.

Conversely, Byrne said that during the meeting in Corner Brook he “outlined how students in this province have lower student debt than other provinces and benefit from a tuition freeze and a student aid system that is the envy of the rest of Canada.”

When government has faced budgetary challenges in recent years it has repeatedly emphasized Newfoundland and Labrador’s low post-secondary tuition fees relative to other provinces.

But Perry says comparing the province to other jurisdictions ignores the benefits of affordable higher learning in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly during an economic downtown.

“The provincial government has spoken about the importance of economic diversification. In order to diversify our economy we need to ensure people have access to a high-quality, affordable public college and university system with a broad range of programs,” he says.

“If we want people to be able to go back to school to upgrade or retrain during a time of economic downturn, then we need to have accessible post-secondary education in communities right across Newfoundland and Labrador. A well-funded College of the North Atlantic is important if we want to have a strong economy in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.”

In its inaugural budget last month the federal Liberal government increased student grant funding by 50 percent, a move Perry says will help students “graduate with less debt, allowing them to more easily purchase a home, start a family, pursue entrepreneurial activity, and meaningfully contribute to the economy in other ways.”

With the state of the provincial economy, and with thousands of workers already unemployed or facing unemployment, Perry says “access to the skills and training necessary to get back into the labour market will be necessary for our economy to rebound.

 We hope [Minister Byrne] has listened to what students have had to say. — Travis Perry, CFS-NL Chair

“The importance of improving access to post-secondary education, especially during difficult economic times, is something the federal government acknowledged in their most recent budget [and is] something their provincial counterparts should look to when making plans for the future.”

In addition to the economic case for investing in making higher education accessible, another theme that runs through the student testimonies in the “Students of Newfoundland and Labrador” campaign is the notion of education as a right, not a privilege.

“Everyone deserves equal access to an education, and the tuition freeze can help make that possible,” one student said.

Lindsay Batt, the Memorial University Students’ Union Aboriginal Students’ representative, said in her contribution to the campaign that fee hikes will disproportionately affect Indigenous and other marginalized students.

“If the tuition fees increase many Indigenous and marginalized peoples who already face so many barriers to accessing education will be forced to leave school or go elsewhere to obtain their post-secondary education.

These students want to be educated, want to gain meaningful employment and want to stay in this province,” she said, “but if tuition fees go up, we WILL leave.”

To view more images of students and their stories as part of the CFS-NL “Students of Newfoundland and Labrador” campaign, visit the Canadian Federation of Students — NL Facebook page. 

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