Lift tuition freeze in N.L. and give campuses more power, says independent report

·3 min read
A report released Thursday says Newfoundland and Labrador's post-secondary institutions should have more control over their own administration but need increased tuition funds to operate at a useful level for the province. (Paul Daly/CBC - image credit)
A report released Thursday says Newfoundland and Labrador's post-secondary institutions should have more control over their own administration but need increased tuition funds to operate at a useful level for the province. (Paul Daly/CBC - image credit)

A new report on the state of higher education in Newfoundland and Labrador offers sweeping suggestions for the province's university and college network, including lifting a years-long tuition freeze to address the "true cost" of administering programs.

The report, entitled All Hands on Deck, contains 84 recommendations. Its authors, an independent committee appointed by the provincial government in 2019, released the report to the provincial government this month, calling for a new tuition model and more autonomy for post-secondary institutions.

"We've got the lowest tuition in the country. How long is that sustainable?" said Education Minister Tom Osborne, speaking with reporters just after the report's release Thursday afternoon.

Osborne declined to say whether he would champion lifting the government-funded tuition freeze, but said he believes taxpayers would support it. The provincial government has paid Memorial University $600 million since 2005 to avoid tuition hikes,he said, and those costs rise every year.

"The amount to freeze tuition keeps growing. Does it need to be looked at? I think it does," Osborne said, adding that balancing fee increases with student aid budgets should be considered before making any tuition changes.

Education Minister Tom Osborne says the report contains progressive ideas but he expressed disappointment at what he said was a lack of detail for how to find financial efficiencies within the schools.
Education Minister Tom Osborne says the report contains progressive ideas but he expressed disappointment at what he said was a lack of detail for how to find financial efficiencies within the schools.(CBC)

Memorial University charges full-time undergraduate students from Newfoundland and Labrador $2,550 per year. The education minister said keeping tuition at that price will cost taxpayers $70 million in 2021 alone.

Despite the annual funding, Memorial administration has said their revenue can't keep up with campus expenses.

An internal committee has repeatedly recommended tuition hikes in recent years to pay for maintenance to its aging buildings.

More control for schools

The report also suggested less government involvement in how Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic operate, allowing administrations the power to select their own board chairs and presidents.

But should government take a step back from running those campuses, Osborne says they'll need fail-safes to keep an eye on where the money's going.

"Autonomy comes at a price. And the price for autonomy is greater transparency and greater accountability," he said.

The report explicitly recommends greater access to internal budgets at both schools, plus the possibility for performance audits from the auditor general.

It also makes a case for more cohesion between Newfoundland and Labrador's economic goals and post-secondary offerings.

The schools should select five or six areas of essential research to fund, and pump up stipends for graduate students assigned to those areas, the report said.

Recommendations for the College of the North Atlantic include more sexual harassment and Indigenous supports.
Recommendations for the College of the North Atlantic include more sexual harassment and Indigenous supports.(Paul Daly/CBC)

Doing so would feed the province's most lucrative industries with usable data and encourage economic growth, attract talent to the province and pay attention to domestic labour market requirements, while also defining a competitive advantage for MUN and CNA, compared with other institutions across Canada.

"I like those aspects. I think they're progressive," Osborne said.

But the report failed to detail where the university could shuffle funds to pay for that research, and didn't provide a blueprint for programs that would address labour shortages down the line.

"I was really hoping for a deeper dive into some strategic direction … giving us a roadmap into what the courses of the future look like," Osborne told reporters. "We shouldn't be playing catchup … [Schools] should know where the labour market demands are going to be."

The report also examined aspects of student life, and recommends increases to campus child care, scholarships, and mental health and online learning support.

It also explicitly suggested that CNA review its sexual harassment supports, noting that the college has no designated sexual harassment office to handle complaints and outreach. It also recommended both institutions offer more dedicated personnel support for Indigenous students.

Osborne could not say whether the report will influence the provincial budget in June, but hinted that timeline could be too short to thoroughly digest and begin to implement any of its recommendations.

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