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Memorial University students go back to the 1990s for a tuition freeze rally

Memorial University students are protesting across Newfoundland on Wednesday. Students in St. John's are marching on Confederation Building.  (Heather Gillis/CBC - image credit)
Memorial University students are protesting across Newfoundland on Wednesday. Students in St. John's are marching on Confederation Building. (Heather Gillis/CBC - image credit)
Heather Gillis/CBC
Heather Gillis/CBC

Memorial University students protested on Newfoundland's east and west coasts Wednesday, demanding the institution reinstate a tuition freeze.

Hundreds of students flooded Grenfell campus in Corner Brook and at MUN's main campus in St. John's on a wet and windy Wednesday morning, chanting, "Students united will never be defeated."

"We see people working two or three jobs just to be able to afford to go to school and that's on top of a full-time school load. That's just not OK. It's really stressful," Gaayathri Murugan, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador, told CBC News on Wednesday.

Full-time tuition for students from the province was $2,550 per year during the freeze, among the lowest in Canada. Canadian students from outside the province were paying $3,330. Tuition for all N.L. and Canadian students now costs $6,000 a year.

International students also felt the brunt of the tuition change. Fees spiked to $20,000 annually, nearly double what they were during the freeze but still below the national average of around $32,000.

Maria Dussan, who arrived as an international student from Colombia in 2013 and graduated in 2018, joined the protest in St. John's for her family, who she says won't have the same opportunities as she did because of higher tuition costs.

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

"It is an injustice, especially for international students," she said. "Education is a right for everyone and everyone should have access to education."

'It's affecting their life'

Wednesday's protests are a throwback to the 1990s, when Memorial began raising tuition, prompting protests from the students.

The provincial government implemented a standard tuition freeze in 1999, when it was $1,650. In 2001, it decreased to $1,485 and the following year to $1,335. From 2003 until 2021 tuition was $1,275.

Mary Feltham, president of the Grenfell campus students' union, said this generation's protests are about change, making education accessible and eliminating student debt.

Troy Turner/CBC
Troy Turner/CBC

"Right now we see fees are going to be continuously rising. Right now we want them frozen at what they are and reverted back," said Feltham.

"Because of the tuition increases incoming students already face, education still is not accessible."

Jawad Chowdhury, executive director of advocacy for MUN's students' union in St. John's, was one of the core organizers for Wednesday's rally.

Chowdhury said students have had enough with tuition fees as they stare down a rising cost of living.

As the crowd approached the steps of Confederation Building, they pushed their way to the doors, banging on the glass and yelling.

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

"Students have the biggest impact, particularly marginalized international students living in poverty. They really feel the impact and it's almost impossible for students to maintain a regular life or choose between rent or food," he said.

Chowdhury said students have a limited income and the cost of living, along with increased tuition fees, is reflecting in their studies.

"Students are performing very poorly academically. It's affecting their life," he said.

Education Minister John Haggie didn't speak with students at the rally, telling reporters he'd rather speak with student representatives in a place where ideas can be communicated clearly.

He says meetings have been arranged with those representatives, and defended MUN's higher tuition.

"It's the second most affordable Canadian university in general for domestic students, Canadian students. And on the kind of international stage, our tuition rates are 20 per cent lower than the Canadian average," he said.

During question period at the House of Assembly on Wednesday, Haggie said MUN tuition "remains a valued proposition, whether you're an undergraduate student or post-graduate or international."

"We are very competitive, even with the tuition freeze gone, which MUN lifted," said Haggie.

Interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn responded, "It may be competitive, but it's definitely not accessible."

Professors show support

Patrick Butler/CBC
Patrick Butler/CBC

Students weren't the only ones weathering the rain and wind in protest.

Erika Merschrod, a professor in Memorial University's chemistry department, says she marched to show support for students, many of whom are exhausted and struggling financially.

"They're facing challenges that I never faced as a student," said Merschrod. "My job at the university is about knowledge creation and we can't do that without the students."

She hopes the demonstration sends the provincial government a message to "invest in the university."

In a statement to Radio-Canada, a MUN spokesperson said, "There are no plans to change the tuition decision."

"Memorial is fully supportive of students' rights to demonstrate and speak freely on all our campuses. Senate is encouraging academic units and professors to grant academic amnesty to all students of all Memorial University campuses so they can freely participate in the provincial strike for education without fear of academic repercussions," the statement reads.

"Memorial's domestic undergraduate tuition fees remains the most affordable in Atlantic Canada. Fees for international undergraduates are below the Canadian university average. Memorial has high-quality programs and will still provide good value for students."

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