ST. JOHN’S (CUP) — Newfoundland and Labrador’s famously affordable post-secondary education could get a whole lot cheaper.
In the same week as an independent poll confirmed that the Progressive Conservatives are well on their way to forming their third-straight majority government, party leader Kathy Dunderdale pledged not only her continued support for the post-secondary tuition freeze in this province, but also the gradual phasing out of student loans altogether and replacing them with up-front needs-based grants.
“Our plan to strategically develop the workforce in Newfoundland and Labrador will give people the ability to effectively match their interests in skilled trades with opportunities in industry,” Dunderdale stated in a news release.
Dunderdale made the first announcement on Sept. 20 at the College of the North Atlantic in Labrador City, during the first day of her party’s campaign. She says that the tuition freeze would be in effect for the full duration of her party’s next term of office, if the government is re-elected.
Currently, all signs point toward the return of a PC government. An independent poll conducted by MQO Research, released earlier in the day before Dunderdale’s announcement, has the PCs in the lead at 53 per cent, the NDP at 29 per cent, and the Liberals at 18 per cent. The poll took place between Sept. 16 and 18.
The PC party’s commitment to scrapping the current student loans program and phasing it into a needs-based grants program comes on the heels of the NDP making a similar announcement only days earlier, during a press conference at Memorial University.
However, NDP leader Lorraine Michael provided more details on her party’s plan to introduce the needs-based grants program. She said the program would be implemented within the first year of being elected, and would offer non-repayable grants to students in the province. That plan is estimated to cost $4.7 million in its first year, and would then be incrementally increased to a final cost of $18.9 million.
According to the PCs election platform — their self-dubbed “blue book,” released on Sept. 22 and titled “New Energy” — they would spend $52 million to sustain the current tuition freeze until the student loan program is replaced after a four-year transition period. While the PCs plan on spending $135 million a year on their election promises, Dunderdale said that it’s part of a better, more responsible Newfoundland and Labrador.
“‘New Energy’ lays out a strategic, fiscally responsible plan for more jobs, better health care, stronger partnerships and continued resource development,” she said in a release. “We will continue to cultivate conditions conducive to growth.”
With all three provincial parties indicating support for an upfront needs-based grants program, it appears all but certain that the province’s post-secondary education system is about to make the transition towards free tuition.
The Liberals also proposed their support of the current tuition freeze, but the needs-based grants program is phrased somewhat differently in their platform. They’re proposing annual, incremental grant increases of $20 a week, which adds up to $960 for a full year. With the average cost of attending Memorial University full-time for two academic semesters being roughly $4,000, the Liberals’ format ends up being a four-year transition as well.
According to Jessica McCormick, Newfoundland and Labrador chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS-NL), her organization’s work in the implantation of the Fund the Future campaign and having an “extremely close working relationship” with the PC government has played a vital role to improvements in post-secondary education.
“When we’re advocating for post-secondary education with policymakers, one of the first things we bring is increasing funding,” she said. “We’re not looking for a K-Mart-style education — we want something that’s high quality. We want students to study in the best labs and classrooms.”
Last year, the Fund the Future campaign saw CFS-NL and members of other student unions across the province send 15,000 postcards to Minister of Education Joan Burke.
“This campaign has a simple, but powerful message — increased funding now for our post-secondary system to improve quality, decrease barriers to access, and reduce student debt is an investment in our province’s future,” said then-chairperson of CFS-NL Daniel Smith in a February 2011 news release.
While Newfoundland and Labrador already boasts the cheapest post-secondary education in the country — not counting residents of Quebec studying in their home province — the implementation of a needs-based grants program would be the first major step in the country towards free education.