Rising tuition fees across Canada highlights need for Newfoundland-style grants program

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Post-secondary students going back to school this year in Newfoundland and Labrador will be the first to fully benefit from the province's new student aid provisions. Starting in the 2015-2016 academic year, Newfoundland's student loan program will be eliminated and replaced with increased grants.

For those students eligible for the maximum amount per term, the provincial grant is $2,380 -- significantly more than enough, for example, to cover undergraduate tuition at the province's only university Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The move to introduce a system of non-repayable grants had long been in the platform of the provincial Progressive Conservatives (PCs), who have been in power since 2003 but have lost much support to the Liberals. The PCs had also previously eliminated interest from student loans and had gradually phased in student grants by reducing the provincial loan limit.

The Liberals, under Gerry Reid in 2007, have previously campaigned with the promise to improve the grants system and reduce tuition by 25 per cent. The NL NDP has also called for replacing the loan system with grants and has previously committed to a goal of free tuition.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May announced Wednesday that, if elected, she would eliminate university and college tuition fees. The Green Party plan would aim for tuition-free education by 2020 and would "eliminate existing or future debt above $10,000, abolish interest on student loans and boost funding for bursaries," according to the CBC.

Lorraine Michael, former leader of the NDP in Newfoundland and current critic for education, re-iterated that position on Tuesday in a telephone interview with rabble.

"...Grants and not loans has been something that we have been advocating for many years," said Michael. "This was part of our platform election after election. We're delighted that the provincial government brought it in. ...[G]etting the provincial loans changed to grants is extremely important for the students here," she added.

Michael went on to express the party's support for a goal of free education, a position shared by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). "We think we should move towards a system of free tuition for the basic degrees and certificates," she said.

Importantly, for many students in Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial grant amount is likely to exceed or approximate the total cost of tuition and ancillary fees. Full-time undergraduate tuition at Memorial remains $1,275 per semester, while additional amounts such as recreation fees, student union fees and mandatory health insurance for those without coverage bring the total cost per term closer to $1,600.

Across Canada, only Quebec has tended to have lower tuition at its public universities. According to a report released Thursday by the CCPA, tuition and compulsory fees, on average, have tripled for undergraduate students between 1993-94 and 2015-16 and are projected to rise from $6,971 this year to an estimated $7,590 in 2018-19.

The effect of low tuition in Newfoundland has meant that Memorial and the province's College of the North Atlantic attract large numbers of students from nearby Nova Scotia, where tuition is much higher than the national average. At Dalhousie University, often viewed as Memorial's primary competitor, the university estimates undergraduate tuition for arts and sciences as being over $4,000 per term.

Bilan Arte, the National Chairperson of the CFS, responded to the development on Monday. The CFS has long campaigned to reduce tuition and on the need for free education.

"We applaud the decision that was made by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. It really showcases to us that budgets are about political will," she told rabble. "It is about being able to find the resources for equitable access and the federal government should have a national standard of accessibility here." Arte went on to praise other provinces who have followed the lead of Newfoundland and Labrador by removing interest from provincial student loans.

Arte also elaborated on the need for free education in Canada. "It is a position that the Federation has always had. As a student movement we believe in the complete accessibility of post-secondary education. ...It doesn't make sense for education to just be a privilege for the few."

Arte went on to express that current spending levels on education could even be held constant if current tax spending was replaced with grants, calling the current federal government approach "heavily loan-based" and condemning many existing measures as inaccessible.

Currently, for example, students who are children of affluent couples may transfer significant tax credits to their parents, reducing their payable tax. In contrast, students from poorer families, whose parents have less or no payable tax, can live for years without benefiting from the same tax credits. Arte criticized this system as a massive and unnecessary deterrent due to the "up-front price tag" of tuition.

North American campaigners commonly cite the availability of free higher education in the Nordic countries, and Michael herself alluded to the long-standing policy, commonly seen as a foundational part of the Nordic social welfare model. "It's not unique, it certainly exists in Europe. If you plan for it, it's possible."

The Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Scotland has also recently gained attention for its free tuition policies, albeit while simultaneously facing criticism that they have actually been coupled with reduced grants.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, attracting and retaining young adults has been an important policy concern for the PCs. Affordable tuition and comparatively generous student aid, therefore, have been cited as a beneficial "economic tradeoff" given that many out-of-province students choose to stay and work after completing their programs.

The replacement of student loans with grants makes the NL PCs an outlier among their provincial cousins. "It's interesting, it's been a PC government that's been doing this," Michael said with a laugh. "But we'll take any government doing it."

 

 Cory Collins is a nonfiction writer, visual artist, poet and contributor to rabble.ca and other publications. His poetry, criticism and art work have appeared in the Island Review, Lemon Hound, The Telegram, Burnaby Now, Off the Coast and Cordite Poetry Review, while he has written on current events, economic news and political affairs for Aslan Media, People's World, Bee Culture and Canadian Dimension. He lives in St. John's and can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.

Photo: flickr/ Mitchell Joyce

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