Province-wide demonstrations oppose cuts to public college programs

Concerned students and staff of the College of the North Atlantic say the province’s move toward privatizing Newfoundland and Labrador’s public college programs will make education inaccessible to many and disproportionately affect those in rural areas.

College of the North Atlantic (CNA) students and staff at 15 campuses across the province were joined by union representatives and other supporters Wednesday as they protested the provincial government’s announcement two weeks ago it will cut $15 million from CNA’s budget.

Students walked out of classes at CNA campuses in Gander, Stephenville, Corner Brook, Placentia, Burin, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Port-aux-Basques, Carbonear, Bonavista, Labrador City, Grand Falls-Windsor, St. Anthony, Clarenville and St. John’s in opposition to how the government’s ongoing austerity program, the latest of which were announced in last week’s provincial budget, will affect them.

Many say the government’s decision to slash funding for CNA’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) program will be detrimental for people living in rural areas, who depend on the program to acquire skills and make themselves employable.

A protester at the CNA rally in Bay St. George. Photo by Charity-Melissa Earles.
A protester at the CNA rally in Bay St. George gives Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale a failing grade. Photo by Charity-Melissa Earles.

“Come September, campuses like Baie Verte, Carbonear, Bonavista, and many other rural areas will no doubt feel empty and desolate after the slashing of nearly 30 academic programs across the province, and the removal of upwards of 900 ABE students from our campuses,” Michael Walsh of the Canadian Federation of Students told the few hundred protesters gathered outside CNA’s St. John’s campus.

“Nobody could have anticipated the privatization of one of our college’s most cherished programs, without consultation, without any planning, it was announced on budget day that ABE would be ripped from its proper place at our college and sold to the lowest bidder,” he continued.

“At a time when Newfoundland and Labrador is faces a looming shortage of skilled labour, and at a time of mass layoffs, it is more important than ever that funding for high-quality, accessible education be made a priority.

Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) President Carol Furlong also addressed the crowd in St. John’s, emphasizing the danger of moving toward a privatized college system in the province.

“We’re on a path of losing one of our most valuable public services. The people of our province deserve accessible, affordable, quality public education,” she said.

“(The government) announced in their budget there would be a comprehensive review of the college next year. We believe this will provide opportunity for consultation with stakeholders (but) it is clear there are more cuts to come. Based on their track record it is unlikely they are going to consult with employees and students,” she continued. “We were taken off guard to learn that cuts were already underway and privatization was in the works. This is not about money, this is about government’s misguided priorities.

“The government speaks of austerity at the same time they’re sitting on $90 million in a special fund that no one is allowed to know what it’s for. They’re sitting on over $2 billion in a rainy day account. Government has billions for Nalcor to invest in Muskrat Falls and the offshore resources. They say they are investing in our future, they say these are sound investments that will reap large returns. I say our future is standing here today and in 15 communities across the province. Our youth are our future, and we stand in solidarity with you.”

The St. John’s crowd chanted between speakers and held yellow signs that read “Our Communities. Our College.” and “Stop Cuts to CNA”.

Megan Smith, an ABE student at the Seal Cove campus, was also concerned about the move toward privatizing the province’s colleges, particularly the ABE programs.

Megan Smith, a student at CNA's Seal Cove campus, says privatizing Adult Basic Education programs will made school unaffordable to many, particularly in rural areas of the province. Photo by Ben King.
Megan Smith, a student at CNA’s Seal Cove campus, says privatizing Adult Basic Education programs will make school unaffordable for many, particularly in rural areas of the province. Photo by Ben King.

“We have heard from Minister of Advanced Education and Skills, Joan Shea, that everything will continue as normal for ABE students once the program is privatized. I don’t know how she can believe this. Once privatized, what are ABE students in remote parts of the province going to do – pack up and hope to get into a private college in an urban centre?” she asked. “This isn’t good enough. With 17 campuses around the province, the College of the North Atlantic is best poised to deliver to ABE students around Newfoundland and Labrador. And further, we’ve seen too many private colleges go bankrupt or close their doors, leaving students out in the cold with an incomplete education and large, dead loans.

“We’ve also heard from the private colleges that students will not be impacted financially because we’re all funded through (Employment Insurance) to go to school anyway,” she continued. “Well, I for one am not funded. Like many of you I work a minimum wage job to pay for my (education) and would be pushed out of the system if I had to pay the exorbitant rates seen at private colleges. I am working a minimum wage job to better my chances at finding a good-paying job in our robust economy. And now my second chance is under threat from this government.

“Will we be able to finish our studies? Hopefully. But then what? Will the programs we want to do be there for us when we’re done our upgrading? And if they are, how long will they be offered? These variables, not knowing what will happen next, is causing … additional stress when we’re trying to complete courses, write papers and study for exams. Justice Minister King has said he will be re-examining the cuts to his department made after experts spoke up and said there would be negative impacts on the justice system. I hope minister Shea will make the same responsible decision to re-examine the cuts made to the college and listen to us, the college education experts.”

* Editor’s note: We were only able to cover the St. John’s rally but would love to see photos and hear stories from the other CNA campuses. Please tell us how cuts to the ABE or other programs will affect you by leaving a comment below. We’ll also publish your rally photos – just send them to [email protected]

Corner Brook photos, courtesy The 4 O’Clock Whistle


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