About 200 people gathered at the steps of the Colonial Building in St. John's Saturday, protesting cuts to post-secondary education.
The anti-austerity rally was organized largely in response to the provincial government's decision to phase out the annual $68.4 million subsidy that has sustained Memorial University's long-standing tuition freeze.
"When we see cuts to funding, we see prices going up," said Kat McLaughin, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students' St. John's chapter, the group that planned the protest.
"Education is a larger barrier to marginalized folks as folks from low income backgrounds are marginalized, racialized folks," she said. "They're the folks who are going to struggle the most with higher education, higher tuition rates."
By bringing together groups including Black Lives Matter and the Indigenous Activist Collective, McLaughlin said the rally was intended to unite the communities she fears will be most acutely affected by the change.
"We don't think that these costs need to go onto the backs of students," she said. "We're calling for the government to prioritize education."
'It's pretty tough right now'
Memorial student John Mweemba is also concerned about the impacts of a tuition hike on marginalized communities.
"I work with a lot of black people and marginalized groups and it's going to affect us a lot," he said. "We barely make it now. To be honest, it's pretty tough right now."
Mweemba says he and many friends are working while studying, and still struggle to make ends meet.
"To study full time is really tough," he said, "and pushing tuition up is just going to expand this hustle for us."
A tuition increase could force students to stay in school longer, take out more loans, or pursue their education elsewhere, Mweemba said.
All Hands on Deck
According to Education Minster Tom Osborne, the provincial government has paid Memorial University $600 million since 2005 to avoid tuition hikes and, he said, costs are rising every year.
In its 2021 budget, the provincial government announced it would phase out MUN's tuition freeze subsidy over five years, starting next year.
The rationale for this decision was that government investment in post-secondary education cost more than $21,000 per full-time equivalent student — more than double the Canadian average.
The operating grant MUN receives from the provincial government is also 30 per cent higher than the national average, according to the budget.
The budget was announced on the heels of two reports that were released in the spring: All Hands on Deck, an independent review of the province's post-secondary spending, and The Big Reset in May.
As its name suggests, the latter report, commissioned by the Premier's Economic Recovery Team, recommended sweeping changes to save the province from financial ruin. It offered suggestions such as selling off publicly owned companies like Nalcor, and increasing taxes on everything from lavish gifts to gas, cigarettes and sugary drinks.
Shortly after the release of the provincial budget in late May, MUN president Vianne Timmons told CBC News a tuition hike would be inevitable.