New Brunswick-born students at STU get lesser deal from province, university alleges
St. Thomas University president Dawn Russell says Liberal goverment unwilling to help Fredericton school
St. Thomas University is alleging unequal treatment from the Liberal government — especially compared with a New Brunswick university that gets a majority of its students from outside the province.
STU president Dawn Russell says the government essentially gives more support — $2,125 per head more — to out-of-province students at Mount Allison University than to the New Brunswickers at St. Thomas.
Mount A, where only 39 per cent of students are from New Brunswick, receives $9,388 per student in provincial support, Russell said.
For St. Thomas, where 73 per cent of students are from New Brunswick, the amount drops to $7,263 per student.
"How can it justify paying more for out-of-province students at Mount A than it does for New Brunswick students at St. Thomas?" Russell asked in an interview.
Citing unfairness, St. Thomas balked at signing the funding memo of understanding the province reached recently with the University of New Brunswick, Mount Allison and the University of Moncton.
STU says its annual operating grant is $1.4 million below what it should be.
Roger Melanson, the minister of post-secondary education, defended the government's treatment of St. Thomas.
"St. Thomas' enrolment has declined dramatically in recent years, down 19 per cent in the last five years and 36 per cent since 2002," he said in an email.
STU said in a statement that it's true there has been a decline in students since 2002, but the school's share of liberal arts undergraduate enrolment has remained constant in the province. In the past five years, the enrolment at all universities in the province has declined.
Mount A isn't down as many students as STU, but the University of New Brunswick and the University of Moncton have lost significantly more, the statement said.
Not about enrolment
But focusing on enrolment is missing the point, STU said, since the university is talking about what the operating grant from the province provides each institution on a per-student basis.
St. Thomas University has never been the university of the wealthy or the privileged, Russell said.
"We have a higher percentage of low-income, first-generation students and Indigenous students," she said.
Why the government would want to put these students at a disadvantage is puzzling, she said.
"We are perplexed by the reasons," she said. "And when we ask ourselves why — our students are typically less well off. Are our students less connected to power and influence? Is that why?
"What's the reason?"
Defied tuition cap
It's not the first time St. Thomas has felt squeezed by provincial decisions. In 2013, the former Progressive Conservative government put a tuition cap on tuition increases at $150 per year.
St. Thomas defied the cap. In its $28.5-million budget that year, it called for tuition increases of $434 for domestic students and $150 for international students, who were already paying a higher amount.
The university has raised tuition several times since 2013 as part of a five-year deal it eventually reached with the province.
Students in the bachelor of arts program at STU pay $6,643 in tuition. International students pay $14,503.
Forced to cut
Russell said the tuition increases haven't made up for the inequity in funding.
And the Liberal government, which was elected in 2014, has been unwilling to help the university, she said.
St. Thomas has been forced to make adjustments that include not filling positions when professors have retired, cutting sports teams, and working with minimal administrative staff.
Now, because it wouldn't sign the memo of understanding about funding, there was a suggestion STU wouldn't see any money from a project fund, Russell said.
"It's time the inequity in the grant be addressed," she said. "We can't be cowed by threats."
Melanson said discussions with St. Thomas University are continuing, but there are factors apart from enrolment that go into decisions about university funding.
"Some programs cost more to deliver than others," he said in an email. "For example, engineering, the sciences and nursing, due, in part, to the nature of materials, equipment and the techniques used to deliver these programs."
Melanson said the government values the role St. Thomas plays in New Brunswick.
He also said the government respected the agreement the university worked out with the previous government, which allowed tuition to increase "by 28 per cent over five years, compared to the approximately eight per cent at other institutions."
Russell said the university will continue to be frugal and operate.
"We won't give up."
With files from Harry Forestell