Nfld. & Labrador

Students, union slam Greene report's proposed post-secondary education cuts

There's strong opposition to the deep cuts to Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic proposed in a sweeping report on Newfoundland and Labrador's dire fiscal situation.

MUN tuition would need to rise three-fold to make ends meet, says president

A new report recommending wide-ranging changes to Newfoundland and Labrador's economy zeroes in on several aspects of Memorial University, and calls for its operating grant to be slashed. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Post-secondary students and faculty are voicing strong opposition to the deep cuts to Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic proposed in a sweeping report into Newfoundland and Labrador's dire fiscal situation, and even the university's head calls the proposals "impossible" to handle.

The report, released Thursday by the premier's economy recovery team, calls for a widespread shakeup to rein in the province's spending and keep it from its current course toward insolvency.

Titled The Big Reset, the report notes both institutions' contributions to the economy — in particular highlighting MUN's accomplishments such as the Genesis Centre, a spawning ground for tech sector innovation — but casts a critical eye over the amount of public funding each receives. It notes Newfoundland and Labrador spends more on post-secondary education than any other province by a wide margin, calling the level of investment "not sustainable."

Among the report's recommendations is a 30 per cent cut to the operating grants to both Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic, spread over the course of six years.

That figure is "an impossible target," said MUN president Vianne Timmons on Friday. "We don't have many options in terms of revenue."

The university's operating grant has been continually cut for years. Budget 2017 cut it by $9 million, two years after 2015's budget slashed it by $20 million.

While Timmons said her team has only had a chance at an "initial analysis" of the report, she said to make ends meet with such a cut, tuition would have to nearly triple, to about $7,000 a year. Full-time undergraduate tuition is currently $2,550.

"We had not planned for that big of a jump," she said, adding that the cuts are recommendations only, and there will need to be talks between the university and government before anything happens.

Vianne Timmons, president of Memorial University, says any tuition hike would need to be accompanied by bursaries or scholarships for Newfoundland and Labrador students. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

'An attack' on youth

The chair of the province's chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students called the report "an outright attack" on youth and students. "Now is the time to be investing in post-secondary education and to maintain affordability by keeping tuition fees frozen," said chair Katherine McLaughlin, in a statement.

The long-standing tuition freeze has been funded by the provincial government to the tune of $600 million since 2005, with MUN's rates the lowest of any university in Canada outside Quebec.

CFS-NL's statement went on to warn that slashing the operating grants would close buildings and cancel programs, and force students to fund the institutions.

The union representing faculty and other academic staff at MUN echoed concerns the report's recommendations would "decimate" education, and rejected the idea of cutting the operating grant, saying spending on schooling is "widely recognized as one of the most effective economic multipliers."

In a statement, the MUN Faculty Association called upon Timmons and the chair of the university's board of regents to denounce the report and support their demand to keep the grant as is.

Timmons said she wouldn't go that far, and that she was happy with certain aspects of the report, including its emphasis on boosting training in the tech sector, continuing education, and greater autonomy for the school from the province.

The College of the North Atlantic operates 17 campuses across the province, such as Prince Philip Drive Campus seen here, but some are struggling with enrolment of just a few dozen students. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Less government management

The report marks the second time in the span of the week the idea of undoing the tuition freeze in Newfoundland and Labrador has been publicly floated. An independent report about the state of the province's post-secondary education, released April 29, made the same recommendation.

Both reports call for less government involvement in the institutions' management.

The Big Reset said such oversight at CNA "has created challenges and likely stymied growth in the institution." Some campuses cater to minuscule numbers of students — there were 10 at the Baie Verte campus in 2018-19 — but continue anyway, requiring government approval for any changes.

"The province cannot afford this inefficiency," the report said, although it did not elaborate on which programs or campuses might be axed. 

In order to grant more freedom to the institutions, the report said, provincial legislation governing them must be changed.

With greater autonomy and less funding, the likely result will be higher tuition, the report said. To help students, the report recommended bursary programs. 

Timmons said any tuition hikes would need to be accompanied by bursaries or scholarships for Newfoundland and Labrador students.

"No matter what the outcome, I am committed to keep our tuition reasonable, and low," she said.

"Students in this province are already struggling to find work and to make ends meet," said the CFS-NL in its statement. That statement continued on to say cheap tuition at MUN is a draw, and "implementing these recommendations would be a big, big mistake."

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