(July 19, 2021) Memorial University of Newfoundland was created after Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation with Canada in 1949.
Then-premier Joey Smallwood declared that one of his first priorities of Confederation was for Newfoundlanders to have the opportunity to receive a quality post-secondary education without leaving the province. The successful future of the former British colony would lie in an educated populace, he declared. He had reason to focus on education. In 1949, literacy rates and the level of education in Newfoundland and Labrador were among the lowest in all North America.
But the dreams of having a populace as educated as in other parts of Canada continue to go unfulfilled.
According to a study issued by the Conference Board of Canada in 2012, Canada’s average university attainment rate was 27.7%. Newfoundland and Labrador came in well under that average at 18.4% compared to Ontario which holds a university attainment rate of 31.0%.
The Austerity Agenda
Now, The Big Reset or The Greene Report authored by (Dame) Moya Greene chair of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey’s Economic Recovery Team (ERT) offers a dystopic vision of Newfoundland’s economic future. And it comes straight from the austerity budget heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, a program of economic neoliberalism driven by US President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who were putting austerity conditions on their loans to the world’s poorest countries, already crushed by debt and told if they didn’t control their spending, there would be no relief at all.
Greene comes by her austerity cred honestly. When she was the CEO of the Royal Mail, she oversaw its privatization.
“Like [Prime Minister] Thatcher, Ms Greene is noted for tenacity,” reported the Financial Times, at the time. “She has been relentless, for example, in persuading the government and the regulator to relax heavy-handed constraints on Royal Mail’s freedom to raise prices and alter products that she regarded as unjustified.”
The Financial Times notes, “But even the Iron Lady balked at the political risk of selling off a public service that carried the Queen’s head on its stamps.”
Since that time, as reported by the Guardian, economists from the International Monetary Fund have said “austerity policies can do more harm than good. Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.”
Among other severe cuts, Greene’s Economic Recovery Team recommends a 30% reduction to the operating grants of both Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic, spread over the course of six years.
Timmons has already announced soaring tuitions hikes fuelled by Finance Minister Siobhan Coady’s budget which included a five-year phase-out of the $68 million the government gives to MUN annually to maintain the tuition freeze according to reporting from the CBC’s Alex Kennedy.
Because of its unique mission to mitigate the damage caused by 500 years of colonization, Newfoundland and Labrador’s post-secondary institutions are significant in repairing centuries old inequity in the province.
And so, for the past 25 years, the tuition for Memorial University has been frozen at $255 per semester for students from Newfoundland. But as of September 2022, these rates will essentially double, as course costs increase to $600. Under the current plan, fees will continue to increase until 2026. The increases are even more dramatic for international students, which according to the CBC’s Alex Kennedy, which will “balloon to $20,000 annually.”
International students are seen as a money maker for all Canadian universities—the average tuition sitting at $32,000, according to NL Education Minister Tom Osborne. Enrolment at Memorial University is now approximately 20,000, 20% of whom are international students, 14% from elsewhere in Canada and 66% from Newfoundland and Labrador.
The colonial inheritance
The mercantile system—as practiced by the ‘truck system’, where cash was never exchanged—was of particular harm to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador because it ensured the economic benefits of the fishing industry went to a few merchants, while fishermen remained indebted to those merchants, and no investment in the public institutions of the colony was made. The resulting damage included a large majority of the population that couldn’t read, didn’t live long and whose babies died young.
Researchers Fran Locke and Penelope Rowe reported in their Tracing a Path from the Past to the Future that, in its worst state, as much as a third of the Newfoundland and Labrador population was destitute. Tuberculosis was a critical concern in the first half of the 20th century. English experts found that Newfoundlanders died from TB at a rate two to three times higher than in Canada, England, and Wales, accounting for 12.5% of all deaths.
A generational double-cross
And in a heart-breaking generational double-cross, the politicians and business people who have benefited most from MUN’s tuition policies are now turning their back on the promise of accessible education for those coming in their wake.
Dame Moya Greene, herself, graduated from Memorial University in 1974 before attending Osgoode Law School and building an award-winning career in Ontario and the UK including her stint as CEO of the Royal Mail (where the Dame comes from).
Premier Andrew Furey after being awarded a Bachelor of Science degree from Memorial University, graduated from its School of Medicine in 2001, as did his wife Dr. Allison Furey.
Finance minister Siobhán Coady graduated from Memorial University with a degree in Engineering before going on to Oxford and the University of Toronto.
Of the 11 advisors to (Dame) Greene, six graduated from Memorial University and two received honourary degrees from the school. Most work in the energy, extractive or financial industries. Of the six who graduated from MUN:
- Moya Cahill holds a B.Eng. in Naval Architecture Marine Engineering from Memorial University and has over 25 years of experience in the oil and gas sector working in Houston, Texas
- Oral Dawe, founder of Dawe Holdings Pte, based in Singapore, graduated from Memorial University with a B. Comm. in 1984
- Earl Ludlow earned a B. Eng. in Electrical Engineering in 1980 and an MBA from Memorial University in 1994, served two terms on its Board of Regents, and spent 40 years with Fortis, “the largest investor-owned distribution utility in Canada”
- Brendan Brothers, co-founder of Verifin, a cyber security software firm. graduated from Memorial University with a B. Eng. In Computer Engineering in 2002
- Iris Petten graduated from Memorial University with a B.A. in 1984 and a B. Ed in Vocational Education in 1997 and is currently Chair of the university’s Board of Regents. MUN Faculty Association called on her “to denounce such a dramatic cut to our post-secondary institutions”
- David Vardy holds a B.A. Economics and a B. Comm. from Memorial, an M.A. in Economics from the University of Toronto and an M. A. in Economics from Princeton University, as well as an Honorary Doctorate from Memorial. As Secretary to Cabinet, he served as a member of the Board of NL Hydro from 1979 to 1985 and Chair of the Public Utilities Board from 1994 to 2001
Two Economic Recovery Team members, Zita Cobb and Chief Misel Joe, have been awarded Honorary Degrees by Memorial University. It is baffling how they can square the contents of the Greene Report with their previous work, although it is worth noting that the storied Fogo Island Inn with rooms costing more than $2,000 a night is actually a registered charity called Shorefast. In 2019, Shorefast issued $1.14 million in charitable tax receipts. Any money Cobb puts into it, she receives a tax credit for it.
The politicians and committee members who are peddling the austerity agenda seem quite prepared eat their fill from the pantry and lock the door behind them. The most recent cuts come on the heels of a $9 million cut in 2017, and a $20 million cut in 2015.
Cuts met with protest
Not surprisingly, the tuition increases met with protest over the weekend.
“Hey hey, ho ho, tuition fees have got to go,” called the student protestors, who gathered at St. John’s Harbourfront Park before then marched along Water Street’s pedestrian mall on Saturday as reported Andrew Waterman of The Independent.
"Education is under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back," the report described.
“Today, we’re here because the Liberal government has shown they do not care about the futures of young people in this province, about the futures of workers in this province and the futures of our families in this province,” said Katherine McLaughlin, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We’re here today because the president of Memorial University believes that handing down a crushing debt sentence is an investment rather than a barrier to the people of this province,” she added. "Today, we’re calling on the government to restore funding to Memorial University and to commit to accessible and affordable education in this province.”
The crowd shouted, "Shame."
Watering the garden of inequity
The impact of the tuition increase highlights the disparities in post-secondary institutions across the country. With elite institutions like the University of Toronto, Western University, McGill University, Queen’s University and the University of British Columbia, which are able to wage billion dollar fundraising campaigns to pay for high profile research programs that attract ‘world class’ researchers and students coming from from the wealthiest families who are prepared to pay top dollar for the prestige. In reality, undergraduate courses at elite institutions like University of Toronto are often characterized by 1,000 students in a first year sociology course.
In Canada, all public universities are registered charities and the charitable donations made by ultra-wealthy donors to top universities generate tax credits for those donors. So, mega donors pay much less tax, which in turns means there is less funding in the government coffers for the federal transfer payments that fuel post-secondary institutions.
And while we see these massive tuition increases at MUN, small universities like Laurentian University in Sudbury applied for creditor protection in February.
The inequity across Canada’s post-secondary eco-system has increased since Newfoundland joined Confederation, when the promise seemed to have limitless potential for many. But the scarcity mentality that has existed in Newfoundland throughout its entire colonial history continues as the inequities existing between population cohorts in Canada remain unaddressed and deeper. At a time when country’s post-education system continues to serve the desires of the few as opposed to the needs of the many.