Student protest casts spotlight on deteriorating state of post-secondary education in the province

Post-secondary students, hit by massive fee hikes and soaring living costs, marched to Confederation Building this week demanding a tuition freeze. Despite the higher fees, the quality of the learning environment continues to worsen, say faculty.
Marching students hold a sign reading "Education shouldn't be a debt sentence"
Students march in protest on November 2nd, 2022. Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

It was a cold, windy day punctuated by sporadic rain showers. Nevertheless, hundreds of students gathered at the St. John’s campus of Memorial University to call on government to reinstate the tuition freeze and implement other measures to restore affordability and access to post-secondary education in the province. 

The action – billed as “All Out Like ‘99” in homage to the student protests which brought about the tuition freeze announced that year – began with an energetic rally at the clocktower outside the University Centre. There was a fierce energy to this protest – half a dozen students with megaphones took turns leading a raucous crowd in angry chants. Before long the square in front of the clocktower was packed with a boisterous mass of students and supporters. Drumming by Indigenous students fired up the cheering crowd for the ensuing march to Confederation Building. 

The march, which took over multiple lanes of the Prince Philip Parkway and ground traffic to a halt, proceeded in slow and orderly fashion to the Confederation Building. Cars and trucks honked their support and motorcycles revved their engines. 

The chants were simple and to-the-point. 

“How high are fees?” organizers yelled. “Too damn high!” responded the crowd. Another chant took aim at the indigenization claims of government and post-secondary institutions. 

“TRC means no fees!” Indigenous student leaders yelled, echoed by the hundreds in attendance. The chant was a reference to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its Calls to Action which organizers say have been undermined by fee hikes that keep Indigenous learners out of university and college. 

The sea of hand-made placards and banners was complemented by an array of flags from the province’s labour and social movements. MUN Faculty Association, Workers’ Action Centre, Migrant Action Centre, NAPE, PSAC, Registered Nurses’ Union, and others were all represented by flag-waving supporters who joined students for the protest and march. 

Once the march reached the Confederation Building, organizers announced a change of plans. They’d learned that Health Minister Tom Osborne was just inside the lobby holding a press conference of his own, and so they called on protestors to make as much noise as they could to draw the attention of media inside. The students advanced up the steps and began pounding on the locked doors for several minutes, yelling “Let us in!” to security guards and staff observing from inside.

Organizers then offered an open mic to anyone who wanted to describe the impact of fee hikes on their lives. Dozens of students took the opportunity, and their comments reflected a range of experiences. Speakers included outport students who described how fee hikes were hurting them and their families. International students denounced the precarity enforced on them by differential fees as well as inequitable health and immigration policies. A local therapist described the negative health outcomes she’s witnessed among students in her practice as a result of the hikes. 

“We are not only here today because of tuition hikes, we are here today because of everything that this government and this cruel administration has failed to do over and over again!” said Memorial student Nita Badaiki. “It is unfair that people have to beg for affordable and accessible education. Everybody here – Black students, domestic students, Canadians, Indians, Nigerians, Africans, everybody – deserves affordable and accessible education. No one should have to carry such a goddamn amount of debt into their future. We don’t have access to loans or grants so our parents or ourselves have to take on so much debt, from family, from friends – it’s not okay. Not for domestic students, not for international students. Not for Black students, not for students with disabilities, not for students from marginalized genders, nobody should have to carry all that debt into their future! We all deserve a bright future.”

“They are making a new generation of poverty,” said another speaker. “International students come here and this is how they treat them?”

NL NDP MHA Jim Dinn spoke to the crowd as well. 

“Tuition fees have far outstripped the ability to pay for it with a solid job,” he said. “Many of you are coming from outside the city, outside the province, outside the country, and that means additional costs, additional debt burdens, the inability to put food on the table in some cases, the inability to focus on what’s important – your studies. If I want people to be there to look after me in the time when I’m going to need it, then the investment starts now.”

“Migrants aren’t just some sort of paper that you can throw away,” said another speaker. “Canada promised us that ‘we welcome everyone.’ And the people in [the Confederation Building] are tarnishing that reputation and the good name of Canada! They’re throwing you away and telling you that you do not matter, that they don’t care if we pay $8000 extra in tuition fees as international students!”

Students from the Circle of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Students read out education-related Calls to Action from the TRC final report. 

“We want to remind the Newfoundland government of their responsibility for education and reconciliation,” said one of the students.

Desiree Cornect holds a sign reading "Affordable Education is Social Justice"
Student Desiree Cornect joins the protest demanding affordable education. Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

“The debt is absolutely crushing”

The combination of higher fees on top of a struggling labour market has created a perfect storm for many of NL’s youth. Desiree Cornect already tried her hand at trade school where she studied to be a culinary professional. Unable to advance in that field, she’s now working to get a university degree. 

“Honestly the student debt is just terrible,” she said. “I’ve already been through a trade school and I’m re-doing my career even though I’m 25, and the debt is just absolutely crushing. I’m a student with disabilities so I do get some [supports] but even then it’s still absolutely crushing and I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to pay it off before I’m dead.”

Adi Khaitan is an international student and organizer with the Migrant Action Centre. 

“I’m currently paying about $1200 a course and that’s just going up,” they said. “It keeps increasing. Tuition in itself is unfair, no one should have to pay for basic necessities, be it tuition, be it housing, be it food. I’m now $5000 in credit card debt and all of this just adds to the precarity and exploitation.

“Migrant students are not eligible for most scholarships, we are not eligible for government grants, we are not eligible for loans…Living as a migrant in Canada, every minute is living a life of precarity, living a life of exploitation. We’re not okay with that.”

With the province facing a dire shortage of nurses and health care professionals, barriers to post-secondary education aren’t helping. That was the message from members of the Registered Nurses’ Union who showed up in support. 

“We’re here to show solidarity with students who are trying to ensure reasonable tuition fees and prevent hikes and provide an environment where students – international students and those from our own province – can come here and get a reasonable education,” said Karen Whelan.

NAPE organizer Jessica McCormick said the plight facing post-secondary students is one that every worker and family in the province ought to be concerned about.  

“The fight for accessible and affordable post-secondary education affects workers too,” she said. “Students are workers too and we should all be united to push back against a government that is eroding our public services including access to public education…This struggle affects workers who have kids, who are thinking of going to college or university, and it affects our communities. We have College of the North Atlantic campuses all across the province and those campuses are hubs for the community, they’re workplaces for people and when we erode public education it erodes our democracy…We need to make sure that we break down barriers to accessing education so that we can have thriving communities and so that everybody regardless of their background, their socio-economic status, can go to college or university if they want to.” 

“People are really struggling”

While hundreds of students participated in the rally, thousands are affected by the fee hikes. Claude Moore was one of many students who shared support for the protest on social media but was unable to attend because high fees require them to work long hours. 

“A lot [of students] really wanted to be there, but unfortunately were working full-time or working multiple jobs to pay for these tuition increases,” they said. “It’s not just a tuition increase. Rent is ridiculously expensive, no one can afford groceries – that’s why the campus food bank had to shut down – it’s a really tough time. There was an amazing turnout at the protest but so many more students wanted to be there. MUN may have granted academic amnesty, but my job’s not going to let me leave.”

Moore, a fifth-year student in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, had to work an eight-hour shift from 8:30 am-4:30 pm that day at a local coffee shop, and then go to MUN for evening classes starting at 5:00 pm. They work at least 25 hours a week – often more – in addition to taking classes. 

Moore initially racked up $20,000 in student loans before a family inheritance enabled them to pay it off partway through their degree. They wanted to avoid further debt, and took a job to pay for bills and tuition. But in order to work enough hours to cover their expenses, they had to switch to part-time student status. They pointed out that many students are stuck in a cycle of being forced to take on debt instead of work because fees are too high for any job earnings to cover. Once a student has accumulated debt from student loans, they’re unable to switch to part-time status to work more hours, because that will trigger loan repayment requirements. So they have to continue accumulating debt rather than working to pay it off.

Working full-time as many students do has an impact on their studies, Moore pointed out. Even as a part-time student they feel it. 

“It has such an impact. I’m behind in all my courses right now, because I’m working all the time, and when I’m not working I’m either in school or trying to catch up on my work…that is extremely unhealthy and detrimental to a lot of students’ mental health. There are lots of times when I’ll be closing the store, working until 11 pm, and then I come home and realize I have an assignment due the next day that I haven’t even had a chance to start because I’ve been working all week. So I’ll stay up until 4 am trying to do my school work, and then I have to work the next morning as well.

“It’s stressful. People are falling behind, people are really struggling. It’s hard. It’s hard for everyone.”

It frustrates Moore that politicians and others fail to realize how dramatically pressures have changed for students in the past few years. 

“I see people with that bootstrap mentality, talking about how they paid their $800-a-term tuition in the 1980s, thinking today’s students should be able to pay their fees as well. They don’t acknowledge just how much fees have gone up and how much harder it is today, and the fact that students are working three jobs and still can’t afford to survive.

“I’m working full-time and I’m in school part-time and I’m still struggling. I know people who are full-time students who are working full-time jobs and I cannot imagine how stressed they must be. It’s not like they’re doing it because they want to. They’re stressed as hell but what other choice do they have? How are they going to put food on the table? How are they going to pay their rent, especially with the rent increases and the amount of slumlords around here?”

Students march in protest - a sign reads "Invest in the future of our province".
Students protesting on November 2nd, 2022. Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

“Higher tuition has not resulted in more money”

Sonja Boon is a professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Memorial, who also shared student calls to action on social media. She wonders why students are being charged higher tuition fees when the quality of their learning environment continues to deteriorate. 

“Higher tuition has not resulted in more money to fulfill the university’s core mission of teaching and research,” she said. “Instead, we are being asked to continue tightening, in ways that are detrimental to students, but also detrimental to our own work at the university.”

Boon pointed to the example of rising class sizes. When she began teaching in 2008, first-year classes were set at 40 students per class. They rose slightly to 45, where they remained for many years. This year, her department was pushed to increase first year class sizes to 55 for in-person classes and 65 for online classes. Now they’re being pressured to increase first-year classes to 100 students per class.

It’s a problem for several reasons, she says. Larger classes means fewer opportunities for classroom interaction and discussion. When professors aren’t able to get to know their students, it impedes their ability to write reference letters or support students’ future professional endeavours. 

“I can tell you that even a difference of 10 students makes a measurable difference to how I approach my teaching and what is and is not possible in the classroom. Going to 100? I can’t even imagine it, honestly.

“It also shapes things like the kinds of exams and assignments we can offer. For example, while it might be absolutely beneficial for students to write essays, or essay questions on exams, it’s not possible for us as instructors to actually mark that many essays or essay exams and so students are much more likely to get multiple choice exams. That’s not good for their learning.”

It also negatively impacts students with disabilities, she notes. 15 to 20 percent of her students are registered for accommodations with the university. 

“In smaller classes, I have the space and time to fully accommodate these students. But the larger the class becomes, the more complex and more difficult it becomes to fulfill my responsibilities to accommodate those students.”

Her department has also been asked to reduce the number of second, third, and fourth year courses they offer. 

“This isn’t because they aren’t filling, because in our department they do. It’s because we aren’t being given enough teaching capacity to cover the full range of courses that we feel we could and should be able to offer across the breadth of our undergrad and grad degree programs. This means that there are less courses for students to choose from…[it] does potentially slow students’ ability to graduate, because they have less options.”

She notes that when she began teaching, faculty members who went on parental, research, or other leaves were always replaced with term appointments to cover the teaching obligations of the person on leave. 

“That then turned into per course instructors – much more precarious, far lower pay – and now we are being told to manage with less per course instructors. The net effect is we’re able to offer less courses.”

As a student, Moore has struggled with the impact of reduced course offerings. 

“It’s been affecting me since I first started,” they said. They only have one more 3000-level course left to complete one of their majors, but the department is only offering two next semester and they’ve already taken them both. They’ll probably have to wait until next fall to complete that requirement. 

“Hopefully I would have graduated sooner, but it takes so long to get all these courses because they’re just not being offered. So many of these courses I’ve had to wait a year, a year and a half for it to be offered. That’s prolonging your degree, it’s costing you more money, and making everything more difficult in the long run.”

A student holds a megaphone with their other fist in the air on the steps of the Confederation Building.
Students marched to the Confederation Building to demand affordable tuition. Photo by Rhea Rollmann.

“We’ll be back”

MUNSU Director of Campaigns Isabel Ojeda was pleased with the protest turnout, and warns it’s just the beginning. 

“We really wanted to emphasize the strong student movement history that we have here in the province, and that so many students have worked so hard to ensure that we did have more affordable tuition here,” she said. “We’ve really come together as a province time and time again, and as a student body to prove that education is a right for Newfoundland and Labrador. 

“The thing that was really inspiring was seeing students that had never been involved in the student movement before today come and share their stories on why they came out and the ways that the government and administration were failing them.”

Ojeda says their ongoing campaign calls on government to reinstate post-secondary education funding on a provincial level and reverse the recent fee hikes at both Memorial and College of the North Atlantic. 

“We also want to see the cancelling of student debt both current and past, and we want to see an elimination of all differential fees for international and out of province students. What we’re trying to achieve here is fully funded education that’s free to students.

“It definitely doesn’t end here, we’re going to be coming back with more and more actions and continuing to put pressure on government and the administration. It’s important that folks know that one good demonstration doesn’t mean the end of the campaign. We’re going to keep fighting, morale is up, and it was really exciting to see so many students out doing the work.”

To learn more about MUN’s recent tuition hikes, check out Elizabeth Whitten’s 3-part series published earlier this year:

Memorial’s Tuition Thaw Leaves Students in the Cold

Why is Tuition Thawing Now? Following the Money at MUNL

Tuition Thaw, Student Debt, and the Future of Memorial

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