Last March, Keith Dunne and I wrote an opinion piece on Danny Williams' post-secondary education (PSE) legacy in Newfoundland and Labrador. Among other things, we pointed out that average undergraduate tuition fees (for domestic students) in Newfoundland and Labrador are $2,624/yr., compared with $5,138 for Canada as a whole and $6,307 in Ontario.
With a provincial election slated to take place in Newfoundland and Labrador on October 11, Newfoundland and Labrador's NDP is proposing to take the province even further down the path of PSE affordability.
On Monday, the party released its PSE strategy. Within three years, it proposes to eliminate provincial student loans, and replace them with provincial student grants.
Right now, 40 per cent of a PSE student's loan in Newfoundland and Labrador comes from the provincial government (with the other 60 per cent coming from the federal government). And just over half of the provincial component comes in the form of a grant (while the other part comes in the form of a loan).
The province's NDP is proposing to increase the grant portion until fully 100 per cent of the provincial component comes in the form of a grant, rather than a loan. If the party forms a government, they propose to immediately shift the grant portion to 75 per cent of the provincial share of student aid. And within three years, the provincial share would be 100 per cent grant-based (ergo: there would be no more newly-issued provincial student loans, only provincial grants).
The proposal would assist both undergraduate and graduate students. Both part-time and full-time students would be eligible.
(It should be noted that the student loan/grant program is needs-based. Students from households with an income of $140,000 or more are not eligible for assistance. International students are not eligible for the program either, though their tuition fees in the province are currently frozen.)
Given that Newfoundland and Labrador already has tuition fees that are considerably lower than the Canadian average, the Newfoundland and Labrador NDP's proposal is quite extraordinary. If Danny Williams shifted PSE affordability into turbo, Newfoundland and Labrador's New Democrats are proposing to rock it into Mach 1.
I think the status of the PSE affordability debate in Newfoundland and Labrador has at least four important implications for the rest of Canada.
First, the upward trajectory of tuition fees and student debt experienced by much of Canada over the past two decades is not an inevitability. Nor are we at or near the last stage of some sort of "evolutionary" process in the sector. Rather, what goes up can also go down. There are always choices.
Second, any political party can make substantial progress on the PSE affordability front. Progress in Newfoundland and Labrador began under the Liberal government of Brian Tobin in 1999. It then moved into overdrive under his successor Roger Grimes (also a Liberal). It then shifted into turbo during the Progressive Conservative government of Danny Williams.
Third, the NDP (in any province) always has the option of pushing the envelope on PSE affordability, even when the status quo may make that seem redundant. Newfoundland and Labrador's NDP could have sat back in this election campaign and relied on their reputation as a progressive party. Instead, they've proposed to take Newfoundland and Labrador even further down the road of PSE affordability.
Contrast this with Ontario, where an election campaign is also underway, and where tuition fees are currently the highest in the country. The Ontario NDP has responded by proposing to freeze tuition fees at their current levels and to eliminate the interest on the provincial portion of student loans. The NDP has estimated that the latter measure would save the average student $60 per year on a $25,000 debt. (To put that into perspective, the undergraduate tuition grant being proposed in the Ontario Liberal platform would be worth $1,600 per full-time undergraduate university student per year.)
Finally, voters like to see PSE made more affordable. When Danny Williams' retired from politics after making great strides on PSE affordability, Angus Reid's vice-president said that Williams' popularity was "extraordinary by Canadian standards." And in response to a Harris-Decima poll taken last month in Newfoundland and Labrador, 84 per cent of respondents said they support "having the provincial government gradually increase its funding to college and university to the point where it provides free education through to the end of college/university."
This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.
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