A cut worth celebrating

The elimination of student loans in this province is a momentous achievement. Let’s remember just how momentous it is.

When it comes to budget time (at any level of government), one of the common mistakes people sometimes make is to think of budgets as financial documents. They are not. Budgets are political documents: expressions of the policies and principles of the political parties that propose them. Their point is neither to make money nor to save money, but to explain how government proposes to spend its money. If government is doing its job properly – taxing the wealthy and corporations, regulating the (often reckless) private sector, stewarding natural resources and trade, conducting its own affairs responsibly – it will have adequate money. The question is, what will it spend that money on? What are the good and desirable things for our elected representatives to use our collective provincial wealth on, in order to improve life for all of us who live here?

As political documents, budgets provoke debate, dissent, and discussion. But all too rarely do they provoke a party.

And yet, on April 4, that’s precisely what happened, as students and others gathered in the University Centre at Memorial University for a unique sort of celebration, for an achievement that is a first among provinces in this country. After about twenty years of disastrous experimentation with a student loan program, the provincial government is eliminating the loan system and replacing it with up-front, needs-based grants.

Something worth celebrating indeed. But this year’s denouement – the elimination of the provincial loan program and its substitution with non-repayable grants – is only the end of the story. And it’s at a time like this that the story itself is worth remembering.

Once upon a time…

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Liberal government of Clyde Wells introduced a ruinous series of neoliberal austerity schemes, cutting government funding to an array of social programs and promoting privatization as the solution. The flawed and corporate-driven economic policies of that era wrought havoc across the province, and much of the province’s social (and even physical) infrastructure is still recovering from those disastrous years.

In post-secondary education, community college programs and campuses were eliminated, funding was slashed drastically and tuition fees rose dramatically. For a period during the 1990s this province had the highest tuition fee increases in the country. The provincial government eliminated what was left of the grant program and instituted full student loans, like the other provinces. The results were predictable: student debt skyrocketed (to the highest levels in the country) and enrollment plummeted. There were spin-off effects too: on outmigration, unemployment and decay of physical infrastructure.

There is often a tendency among some people – both those who want to think themselves very smart, as well as those who don’t realize how gullible they are – to attribute these types of things to the mysterious workings of “the economy” – a set of phantom phenomena that are somehow imagined to work unseen, like faeries, to make good or bad things happen. There’s nothing of the sort — the economy can be managed quite handily with a dose of common sense: bad policies produce bad results, and good policies produce good results. Eviscerating social programs produces social hardship. Cutting funding to post-secondary education drives students into debt and out of the province. The Liberals claimed the private sector would quite charitably pick up the slack. They did: producing useless training programs that simply took advantage of provincial loans to line corporate pockets (and occasionally overstretching themselves to the point of bankruptcy), thereby leaving students both indebted and degree-less.

Bad policies beget bad results.

Students—and society—organize

In the face of these challenges, there was a dramatic mobilization of civil society in Newfoundland and Labrador, led especially by students. Students here were united in a way they rarely have been in any other province: instead of progressive-minded leftists battling with argumentative conservatives, one of the remarkable parts of the story is how students – on both the left and the right, and the quite sensible majority who were somewhere in the middle – recognized and accepted the basic fact that post-secondary education is a vital, important social good that everyone should have access to without barrier of cost or fear of debt.

The organizing and protesting intensified during the mid-1990s, and in 1999 it was Brian Tobin – another Liberal premier – who finally conceded that the students were right (he said as much in a famous speech) and froze tuition fees. Two years later, sober study of the situation (coupled with pressure from students and their supporters) confirmed that cutting funding had had terrible repercussions, and that it was time to reverse course. A 25 per cent tuition fee reduction was announced, spread over three years.

Since then, successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, no matter what their position on other issues, have turned champion of publicly-funded, accessible post-secondary education. It’s not hard to see why. Once tuition fees began to be rolled back, there was an almost parallel increase in enrollment. Moreover, students from other provinces began flocking to Memorial University to study, fleeing high fees and debt-loads in their home provinces. This has helped to keep enrollment rising (despite our shrinking numbers in the K-12 system), has helped to counter outmigration and has brought an array of additional economic benefits. Many of these students forge friendships and families in the province, and have stayed to build companies, create jobs, and practice vital professions like medicine, law and more.

There was a moment of fear when Danny Williams was elected. The hard-nosed businessman was elected on a promise to get the province’s financial state in order, and he too had set his targets on public spending. When elected he undertook a white paper review of post-secondary education, and there was widespread fear he would take advantage of that moment to reverse course, re-introduce cutbacks and open the door to fee increases. Remarkably, that didn’t happen. Students were interrupted in the middle of preparing for a rally at the Confederation Building – mere moments from boarding the buses, in fact – and asked to come along to the premier’s office for a press conference at which he would announce a continuation of tuition fee freezes and increased funding for post-secondary education. Good timing: the protest turned into a party.

For all his concerns with public spending, Williams had studied the facts and drawn the same conclusions as his predecessors: post-secondary education is one of the greatest and most beneficial social goods there is, and the benefits it was bringing to the province were unprecedented. He followed successive Liberal premiers in becoming the new champion of post-secondary education. And a champion he was: his ministers frequently complained that other ministers verbally abused them at federal events for making them look so bad to students in their home provinces, and pressured them to stop being so progressive and successful. Williams (like his predecessors) was even invited as keynote speaker to national student gatherings, where he gave hope to student activists across the country and drove home his point to the national media in fiery speeches, stating that saving money was no help to the economy if the population doesn’t have the skills and education to build the economy in the first place.

A ‘Made-in-NL’ model

Perhaps the greatest thing to celebrate is that the post-secondary system in this province represents the triumph of common sense over ideology and partisan politics. Every party has endorsed the NL model of progressive post-secondary education. When elected, every government for the past 15 years has upheld and improved that system with both commitment and cash.

It is, in short, the one thing that we have unequivocally done right in this province.

When political parties can put aside their spite, envy, enmity and hostility, and embrace a model that crosscuts political ideology, it shows that something in our system is still working quite well. It also reflects the fact that education, in particular post-secondary education, has become one of the leading values shared by people in this province. And that’s something to be proud of. Indeed, a glance at broader 20th century history reveals this. When a memorial was called for to honour those from this province who died in the First World War, what did we choose? To build a college in their honour – the precursor to Memorial University. When Newfoundland and Labrador voted to join Canada, what was one of the first things we did thereafter? Expand the Memorial College into a full-scale university, to serve as a guardian of our culture and history, and to equip our future generations to engage fully and equally in the modern world; as well as ensuring we’d be able to engage with other Canadians as equals in this new experiment of Confederation.

Higher education has emerged as one of the guiding values of our society in this province. Moreover, it’s something that, overall, we have done quite well. Quite brilliantly, in fact. What mistakes we have made, we learned from, and we were not afraid to admit they were mistakes. And now we have what is without a doubt the best, most accessible post-secondary education system in the country.

Still room to grow

That is not to say we haven’t made mistakes – we have. The dismantling of the distance education program a few years ago (for no logical reason), the privatization of Adult Basic Education under former Premier Kathy Dunderdale; the system is not perfect, and the university is always at risk of becoming bloated with over-paid bureaucrats and senior administrators, like its counterparts in the other provinces. Hiring too many senior administrators from other provinces has brought people whose narrow experience is confined to the bad policies of those other provinces, and resulted in a burdensome and unnecessary bureaucracy, as well as far too much use of external (often Ontario-based) consultants and headhunters.

Looking at MUN’s recent media releases reveals the danger that white papers, strategic reviews, and other administrative exercises (all of which are secondary to the university’s core mission, and are often merely boorish and wasteful exercises deployed largely to justify the unnecessarily high salaries of administrators) will take the place of the university’s actual mission: teaching and research. Increasing reliance on contract teachers in lieu of permanent professors is also a problem. If the political parties want to vie with each other over post-secondary policy, let them vie over these issues, and not commit the political suicide of questioning access for our students.

Of course, the policies have had their share of critics, who have been vocal, if not very numerous (or very popular, or very sensible). There will always be the scattered corporate ideologue; the scattered snobby student elite; the scattered schemer who thinks they could make a bit of profit if the government privatized something (like Adult Basic Education, say).

“But the low fees can’t last forever,” nay-say the nay-sayers. They can, and they’d better. The need for a solid start for the province’s youth, and retraining for many of its professionals, will never go away. It would make as much sense to consider changing this strategy now, as it would to consider getting rid of high school.

“But we had extra oil money,” squeal the nay-sayers again. “Our finances are tighter now.”

And as usual they’re totally wrong. We did these things long before Danny’s oil money started rolling in. The most daring of the tuition fee reductions was done when the province’s finances were still in a dire state. We did these things because things were desperate, not because we were rich (which we weren’t). If we could do these things when the province’s finances were in a terrible state, just imagine what we can do now that they’re improving.

“But having low fees isn’t everything,” complain the nay-sayers. “Our research and infrastructure is suffering.”

Actually, no, not in a comparative context. There are improvements that need to be made, but the NL post-secondary model doesn’t just lower fees: it’s a broad commitment for core public funding that has seen the university receive more money than ever in its history. As somebody who has attended university in both this province and Ontario, I can attest that the higher tuition fees in Ontario deliver a much lower quality of education, both in terms of infrastructure, support programs and quality of classroom learning. The vaunted universities of Upper Canada – and their students – are in a desperate state, undermined by bad policy and poor leadership.

There are other complaints, and they’re all equally silly. Thankfully, the people of the province know it, which is why opinion polls consistently show that over 80 per cent approve of making post-secondary education even more accessible than it is now.

We’ve come almost full-circle in roughly 20 years. The generation that had grants taken away from them in the 1990s and were thrown into crippling debt – which many of them are still paying off – are now able to watch their children grow up without, well, without as much debt. There is still the federal student loan program (which provides roughly half of funding for students) to contend with, and the ludicrously high fees of some professional programs. In fact, there’s the fact post-secondary education costs money at all; opinion polls suggest most people in the province support the European model of free post-secondary. Perhaps that’s the next goal for the parties to vie with each other over: who will go down in history as the first to achieve it? (Since Smallwood in the 1960s, that is.)

But overall, we’re on the right track. So congratulations to the government for doing the right thing. Let’s stay the course, and make sure we continue to celebrate our victories as intensely as we work to achieve them.

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