Students, faculty vow to fight MUN fee hikes

In the wake of a vote to raise tuition and residence fees for certain students attending Memorial University, the Canadian Federation of Students, its member unions and allies say they will strengthen the fight for accessible education in Newfoundland and Labrador.

On Thursday Memorial University’s Board of Regents voted on a budget that will see tuition fees increased by 30 per cent for graduate and medical school students, with on-campus residence fees raised by the same margin. But a coalition of unions representing MUN students, faculty and staff says it will continue to fight for more accessible post-secondary education before the hikes come into effect in 2016, and in the lead-up to this fall’s Nov. 30 provincial election.

The decision to raise the cost of education for certain students comes two and a half months after the provincial government announced nearly $50 million in funding cuts to the university.

A previously rumoured 30 per cent tuition fee increase for international students was not part of the final budget proposal, but student union leaders say non-Canadian grad and med school students, as well as those living in residence, are among the most financially vulnerable students at MUN and will be negatively impacted by the fee increases.

“An increase in tuition fees for groups of students who are already struggling will only drive them out of the system, sabotage their future, and undermine the future of this province,” Memorial University Students’ Union Director of Student Life Brittany Lennox told a crowd of protestors outside MUN’s University Centre on Thursday, moments before the 100 or so students and faculty members marched to Gushue Hall, where the school’s Board of Regents was preparing to vote on the budget.

“We need to keep the tuition fee freeze, not only because our individual futures depend on it, but also because our collective future, and the collective future of Newfoundland and Labrador, depends on this tuition freeze.”

The university’s senior administration and critics of the student-led resistance to the fee hikes have maintained that even with the increases MUN will remain competitive and still have some of the lowest tuition fees in Canada. But union leaders say benchmarking the cost of education at MUN according to what universities in other provinces are charging detracts from the student movement’s larger objective of making post-secondary education in Newfoundland and Labrador free for all students.

In 1999 tuition fees were reduced 25 per cent and frozen for students at Memorial University and College of the North Atlantic campuses, a provincial government policy that has been maintained for the past 16 years due in part to lobbying by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which represents five unions and all 27,000 post-secondary students in the province.

“The last thing we need right now is to jeopardize the fragile gains that that tuition fee freeze has lent us,” CFS N.L. Chair Travis Perry told the crowd gathered at MUN on Thursday. “It’s the tuition fee freeze, not oil revenues, that has been pivotal in increasing enrolment at our institution, in boosting immigration, in strengthening our labour market, and in ensuring we can say that we are the best province for accessible post-secondary education in the country.”

Perry and student union leaders have argued that maintaining the tuition freeze significantly lessens the burden of debt and stress for students in Newfoundland and Labrador, giving students a better opportunity to pursue careers they’re interested in rather than ones that will most quickly help them pay off their debt.

The coalition has also argued that the tuition freeze has helped alleviate demographic challenges facing the province, such as an aging and declining population and lack of skilled workers.

But MUN administration says that with university infrastructure in disrepair and a growing need for new facilities and equipment, coupled with the recent funding cuts from the Paul Davis PC Government, it has no choice but to recover some of the money from students.

“The last thing I want to do is be part of any initiative that is increasing graduate student fees,” MUN Provost and Vice-President Academic Noreen Golfman told The Independent on Friday.

Golfman, who previously served as the university’s dean of graduate studies, called the fee increases “modest” and said while she recognizes a $750 annual tuition fee increase for grad students is “not small potatoes [for] some people,” it’s “really not very taxing in the big picture.

“At the end of the day [the tuition fee] increase will still bring us into highly competitive fee range because everybody else’s tuition in Canada is going to be going up annually…at least 3 per cent, if not more, and we’ll still be about 50 per cent less than domestic [student tuition fees], and about 25 per cent less [for international student tuition fees], than anybody else in the country,” she explained.

Combined, the residence and graduate and med school tuition fee increases will generate roughly $4.5 million per year.

The MUN budget also includes a $1.3 million one-time reduction to the school’s operating budget and a $3.6 million ongoing budget reduction to administration.

Grad students “already struggling”

Maryam Shaheen, Director of Student Life for MUN’s Graduate Students’ Union, said Thursday that grad students at MUN are “already struggling to get by” for various reasons and will be negatively impacted by the fee hikes.

“Here at Memorial we have some of the lowest funding packages in the country. Many students don’t have funding at all,” she said.

“In order to conduct our research or to share our work at conferences, we have to factor in considerable travel costs to get there. There is a very limited market for part-time jobs that graduate students can access. For those of us with families, childcare is too expensive,” Shaheen continued, listing some of the factors potential grad students will think about when considering MUN. “Many of us haven’t seen our families in four years. Not to mention the weather, the lack of public transit, the higher cost of living, and the other day-to-day challenges of living here.

“The fact is the tuition freeze is the single biggest factor drawing students to this university. If our fees go up graduate studies simply won’t be sustainable here — certainly not for the best and brightest, which our university is currently able to attract thanks to the freeze.”

Photo by Justin Brake.
Students and faculty members protest outside Gushue Hall on the Memorial University campus Thursday. Inside, the school’s Board of Regents was voting on MUN’s budget, which included tuition and residence fee hikes for certain students. Photo by Justin Brake.

A 2008 report by the university’s Centre for Institutional Analysis and Planning revealed 82.8 per cent of students surveyed in 2007 said MUN’s “financial affordability” was an important reason they chose to attend the university.

“It’s a harsh and frustrating reality when the hard work we contribute to this university and to the province goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by the very well-paid administrators, and [by] government officials whose budget proposals will now make it even more difficult for us to continue contributing our work and our ideas to this institution,” said Shaheen.

“Even though many of us struggle by without funding, without jobs, without even earning enough to make it above the poverty line, we are not asking for much. We are just asking to be allowed to continue our work, our studies, our contribution to this university.”

Golfman said MUN’s funding packages are “very healthy” for students with good grades, and that over a 10-year period the school’s fellowship budget has gone from $15 million to $29 million.

“Every PhD student who’s eligible gets about $7,000 as a base unit, and then we’re trying to package these things up to at least $20,000,” she explained.

“Does every single student who’s here have access to fellowship funding? Well yes, but they have to maintain a grade point average. In fact, we’re pretty liberal in our terms of reference for eligibility for fellowships. Other universities’ bars are much higher.

“I’ve been committed as a dean and remain so as a provost, to diversifying and increasing our graduate cohort — it’s vital for the province, vital for the university,” she continued.

“If I really believed that this increase was going to have any kind of significant effect on our application rate I would be out on the front lines fighting it. I honestly do not believe that.”

In an interview with The Independent last month Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Clyde Jackman defended the government’s funding cuts to the university, saying MUN’s tuition fees would remain competitive and that the financial burden on students would be partly alleviated with the government-funded loans-to-grants initiative coming into effect this year.

“We are moving now to a grant program, so as of September coming there will be no longer any provincial student loans,” he said. “So I think if you look to where we’ve come as a province over the last eight, nine years, I think we’re doing pretty good.”

Though the CFS has lauded the loans-to-grants initiative, Perry said provincial student grants only account for 40 per cent of students’ post-secondary funding—the other 60 per cent comes from federal loans—and that the tuition and residence fee hikes will still mean greater financial burden on poorer students since there is a cap on the grants.

“Students who are already qualifying for the maximum amount of student financial assistance wouldn’t qualify for any additional funding when their fees increase,” he said. “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.

“Also, students from outside of Newfoundland and Labrador don’t qualify for our grants program so a tuition fee increase would be harder for international students and students from the rest of Canada to bear.

“More student debt cannot be the answer to funding our public post-secondary education system,” Perry said.

Disagreement over where to tighten the belt

Student and faculty union leaders have criticized the growth of the university’s administration in recent years, arguing the school’s bureaucratization—according to its financial statements MUN spent $412 million on employee salaries and benefits last year, with 121 senior administrators earning between $100,00 and $200,000—has led to inflated administration expenses.

MUN President Gary Kachanoski earns upward of half a million dollars per year, including living and travel allowances.

“The problem is, to us, that the university administration has still not explained its budget priorities and why they’re downloading these costs on to the students when there are other things that they should be looking at,” MUN Faculty Association President George Jenner told The Independent Thursday.

“We still think that there’s a bloated administrative growth in this university, and they want to make it worse; according to their recent innovation strategy they want to add another two offices, and it’s just ridiculous. They have themselves a business model based on best practices, but they aren’t innovating because they’re just following what every other Canadian university is doing.”

In a statement released Thursday evening Kachanoski called the school’s budget “equitable” and said it “balances our complex fiscal reality with our mandate to deliver excellent academic programs.”

He was not available for an interview on Friday.

Golfman said Friday though that the $3.6 million cuts to administration could result in layoffs.

“Every unit [of the university administration] has to scrutinize what it can do to make up that $3.6 million,” she said. “We’re in the very embryonic stages of working through what [the cuts will mean], but some of it’s already rolling out [and] there are likely people costs.”

Golfman said she doesn’t yet know who or what will be affected by the cuts, but that to her knowledge, “nobody has been [laid off] yet. But this is early.”

The provost also said accusations that MUN has fostered a “bloated administration” amount to a “convenient rhetorical phrase that slams something without really understanding the complexities of trying to balance a budget with all the demands of real, physical plant needs.

“And again, most of those needs have to do with serving students,” she continued. “They want up-to-date classrooms, they want labs, they want space, they want services, they want special counseling for mental health, for wellness, for sexual harassment, and it goes on and on. And students are constantly—and rightly so—asking for those services. Where is the money supposed to come from to provide for the personnel in those cases and for the labs that they need to be state of the art researchers? That’s the dilemma you face as the manager of a plant like this.”

Education a right, or a privilege?

The bottom line for Jenner, Perry and the student unions, however, is that the conversation needs to turn toward government making post-secondary education free for students in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It’s an easy target for the university to go after [students], to raise tuition fees,” Jenner said. “And they make this argument that [fees] are comparatively low, but other countries have no tuition fees.

“It’s a proven strategy in many countries that free post-secondary education works. If they want people to stay here and grow the population we need some incentives to do it, and I think that’s a positive one and the students have demonstrated that for international and graduate students, and even out-of-province students, it seems to be helping a lot.”

Golfman said she’s aligned with the student unions’ push for free post-secondary education in principle, but that the university’s administration and Board of Regents are only able to work with what they’re handed by government.

“I guess a bigger question is, is our society willing to invest in Memorial? Because ultimately, it’s taxpayers who will do it, because government is the people,” she said. “I believe in that principle of free education, I would love to see it. But short of that happening, where are we going to go with it?”

Golfman said fully-funded post-secondary education in Newfoundland and Labrador would allow Memorial University to adequately train “highly-qualified personnel” in knowledge-based and technical industries, “preparing them for 20th century reality [in] a complex, uncertain world for which you need highly-skilled people to lead and run your society and prepare for all the uncertainties that await us, whether it’s the planet, the economy, shifting natural resources, uncertain natural resources — and on and on and on.”

Over the past year Newfoundland and Labrador’s unemployment rate has fluctuated between 10.4 and 15.6 per cent, often the highest in the country.

According to data collected by the federal government, despite a dramatic improvement in adult literacy in Newfoundland and Labrador more than half of the province’s adult population is still functionally illiterate. Nationally, the biggest gap in literacy rates was observed “between those who had completed high school and those with less than a high school education.”

The Conference Board of Canada notes that a “high-school diploma is the prerequisite stepping stone to post-secondary education, which is increasingly deemed essential to success in the labour market.”

Furthermore, the Board states on its website, “[t]here is plenty of evidence that well-educated citizens are more actively engaged in society: they tend to make better choices about factors that affect their quality of life (e.g., diet, smoking, exercise); and they earn higher incomes than those who are less educated. Less prominent in the mind of the public, but equally well-known among decision-makers, is the fact that well-educated and skilled people make important contributions to business innovation, productivity, and national economic performance. In an interconnected global economy, provinces and countries with more highly skilled workers have a distinct competitive advantage.”

 You want a society that can compete, can be a player globally, and in order to do that you need highly-literate, highly-skilled people. I fully believe that.  — Noreen Golfman, MUN Provost and V.P. Academic

In its 2013 austerity budget the Kathy Dunderdale Government cut $15 million in funding to the College of the North Atlantic and privatized adult basic education, making it more difficult, critics say, for adults to obtain their high school diplomas before moving on to post-secondary education.

The year prior, Dunderdale said she “couldn’t agree…more that education is a right, not a privilege,” and that she hopes to one day see everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador have access to, not only “full primary, elementary and high school fully paid for by the state, but [also at least] their first degree paid for by the state.

“[It] is an investment in Newfoundland and Labrador when we invest in [students], when we invest in these learning institutions, and we’re going to continue to do that because it’s a priority for all of us — it’s an investment in Newfoundland and Labrador, an investment in our province,” she told MUN students at the Feb. 2012 announcement of the continued tuition freeze.

Golfman said she wishes Dunderdale had “also set up some kind of reserve fund that could be drawn on for contingencies, or [done] something the way Alberta many years ago with Peter Lougheed did and set up a heritage fund, or set up something, because we’re living in a world of extreme uncertainty and anything can happen, as it has almost overnight with the price of oil. And not having any preparation for that — it really speaks to the bigger question: What kind of society do you want? What kind of world do you want to live in here? And what kind of planning are you doing for that world? And of course governments spend quickly, and it’s always about, as Joey Smallwood said, getting elected, getting re-elected and getting re-elected.

“I want a society that’s educated,” Golfman continued. “And the Chinese are getting this. A lot of Asian countries get this. Germany gets it, Norway gets it. You want a society that can compete, can be a player globally, and in order to do that you need highly-literate, highly-skilled people. I fully believe that.

“The buzz phrase is the ‘knowledge economy’,” she continued. “Well, you do need people who understand the complexity of problems who can come together and try to solve those problems who’ve got the right training. So to me the argument is straight-forward: What’s Newfoundland and Labrador going to be like 50 years from now? How are we preparing for that future? And I believe you need a highly trained, well-educated society to prepare for that future and to do the problem-solving necessary. So to me the argument is a no-brainer: You’re putting people to work, you’re generating knowledge, and one hopes that what follows from that is a highly progressive society.”

Golfman and Perry both agree that the coming provincial election is the time for Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans to decide whether they want government-funded free post-secondary education, or whether they support students bearing some of the financial burden of pursuing higher learning.

“I don’t know what the buy-in is more widely, and I guess we’re going to be in an election year and we’ll see where that conversation goes, because I imagine a lot of politicians’ feet, or a lot of would-be politicians’ feet, will be held to that fire,” Golfman said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how this works. If I had to put money on it, I don’t think we’re moving towards a no-tuition fee scheme. I’d love that. I’d love to wake up tomorrow and have the German system, but it’s tied to taxes and it’s tied to, what’s the revenue-generating possibility that the government is willing to consider? And that’s a bigger social question of course.”

Perry said people in this province support the student movement’s call for free post-secondary education, however, and pointed to a 2011 CFS-commissioned poll by Harris-Decima Research that found that 84 per cent of the 476 Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans 18 years and older surveyed supported free post-secondary education.

An academic study also published in 2011 found that almost half of MUN students from Maritime provinces who were surveyed named the “total cost” of attending university as the “most important factor in their decision to enroll at Memorial University.”

The same study, led by MUN Associate Professor Dale Kirby, now on leave while he serves as MHA for St. John’s North and the Liberal Party of N.L. critic for Education and Early Childhood Development, found that on a scale of 1-5 (1 being ‘not important at all’ and 5 being ‘very important’), students from Maritime provinces enrolled at MUN rated the importance of tuition fees in choosing Memorial as 4.18, “meaning that consideration of tuition was of some importance to students,” the study concluded.

The Independent could not reach Kirby for comment by the time of publication, however in a recent leaders’ debate broadcast on CBC Liberal leader Dwight Ball contradicted a statement by his party’s post-secondary critic less than two weeks prior in saying that while he would maintain the tuition freeze for students from Newfoundland and Labrador, if it forms government the Liberal Party would consider fee increases for out of province students.

“[W]e have to be competitive in all the other areas when it comes to accommodations for people coming, for students coming in from outside, because the critical mass is extremely important to deliver and offer good solid programs at Memorial,” Ball said in the June 11 debate.

On May 29, asked by The Independent if the Liberals, should they form government in the Nov. 30 election, would commit to reinstating the tuition freeze, Liberal Advanced Education and Skills critic Scott Reid responded, “Yes, the tuition freeze would be reinstated under a Liberal government.”

He went on to say, “I think [the tuition freeze] has always been our policy, and of course we’re going to continue to consult with people and to flesh out our policy on post-secondary education, but it’s one of our hallmarks, that we believe in accessible and affordable education in this province.

“The Liberal Party has a long-term commitment to tuition freezes,” he continued. “We are the party that instituted this back in 1999, and that was at a time before we had the windfall oil revenue that we had,” he said.

“So it’s a serious commitment and it’s part of the whole liberal philosophy of providing a quality of opportunity; that’s a very important concept to Liberals and to our caucus — the idea that if people work hard you have an opportunity to get ahead. And affordable and accessible education is a very important principle to us as Liberals.”

The NDP too has not been clear on how it plans to roll out its post-secondary tuition policy, though party leader Earle McCurdy and Advanced Education and Skills critic Lorraine Michael have hinted at reinstating the freeze.

In May, at a CFS-organized town hall on the proposed tuition fee hikes, McCurdy said if youth retention and population growth are important, “then quite frankly I don’t think driving up tuition fees fits with that.”

Party spokesperson Jean Graham told The Independent in a follow-up email that the tuition freeze has been part of the NDP’s policy since 1999 and that the party’s position on the matter is “pretty firm”.

NDP Advanced Education and Skills critic Lorraine Michael stands with student and faculty protestors at Memorial University, July 9. Photo by Justin Brake.
NDP Advanced Education and Skills critic Lorraine Michael stands with student and faculty protestors at Memorial University, July 9. Photo by Justin Brake.

Michael attended the student-led protest on Thursday and told The Independent she agrees with the coalition’s demands, “because every study and research that we’ve done shows that it’s been a real benefit to our province and to the young people of our province having the tuition freeze.”

She said that while the party won’t comment definitively on its post-secondary policies until its election platform is complete, she did say the NDP is “leaning in [the] direction” of a tuition freeze for all students.

“We know that everything that’s being said by the international students, by students from the province, by professors, is correct,” she said. “It does not make any sense whatsoever what the government is doing. And when I hear them [say tuition] is still not as high as other places, well we’re different than other places. We’re a province who is begging for more people; we all have recognized—even the government says it recognizes—the need for population growth, and if we’re going to help our economy and look at diversification of our economy, then we absolutely do need to increase [the number of] graduate students who are coming out of our university with new creative ideas.”

MUN History Professor Kurt Korneski, who protested with the students and other faculty members Thursday, said administration’s strategy to meet funding shortfalls by raising tuition and living costs for students “undermines fundamentally the reason the people are here, often, which is because [MUN] is one of the few places you can get a good quality and affordable education.”

Korneski also criticized the administration’s argument that MUN’s tuition is still among the lowest in Canada.

 It’s a valuable thing to have an educated citizenry…and it’s a right that everybody ought to have access to a good quality post-secondary education. — Kurt Korneski, Professor

“They may be lower than they are in some places but they’re free in many places as well,” he said. “They’re not low enough until they’re free from my perspective, so I think that’s a non-argument really. It’s a valuable thing to have an educated citizenry…and it’s a right that everybody ought to have access to a good quality post-secondary education.”

Jenner said MUNFA and the other unions in the coalition will continue to stand with the students and strengthen the lobby for accessible education in the lead-up to the provincial election.

“We are going to continue the push on other fronts to try and get change in the way the university operates,” he said.

Perry said the students’ unions will “ensure a high-quality, accessible post-secondary system [is] on the top of everybody’s political agenda” in the lead-up to the election, “whether it’s the political parties and candidates running or the province as a whole and the people who will be making the decision of who will be running our province.

“I guess it comes down to priorities and what type of society we want to live in. If we prioritize having a highly educated workforce, having a highly educated population, then I think we can find a way to make those investments and make sure the money is going towards where we want it to go.”

Perry said the CFS and its member unions are “looking at a variety of [protest and lobby] tactics,” and they will “probably enlist a few.

“But if it’s anything like the last provincial election, where we saw our asks reflected in all the provincial parties—they all had commitments that were pulled from our lobby document—I think moving forward we’ll be able to get commitments from the political parties on improving our system of post-secondary education and reinstating that funding and reinstating the tuition freeze for all students before those fee increases come to light [in 2016].”

Lennox said at the tuition town hall at MUN in May that given the province’s $8 billion budget and the university’s $318 million budget, for the university—constrained by the government’s cuts—to force students into more debt as a way to recover a few million dollars is unjust.

The fee hikes “are a drop in the bucket” compared to the budgets, she said. “But for students, they [will have] huge, detrimental impacts to their lives.”

Correction: This article previously referred to Dale Kirby as a “former MUN researcher”. It has been brought to our attention that Kirby is in fact an “Associate Professor” at Memorial University.

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