Straight Up MUN

Funding University, Funding a Future?
Auditor General looks at provincial funding for Memorial University 

By Meghan McCabe 

For singer Meghan Trainor, it’s all about that bass. For Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s all about that timing.

And timing is making one particular aspect of one particular report a little bit, well, worrisome for university students (current and future).

In the latest auditor general report, released Monday, Terry Paddon and his office recommends the provincial government look at the tuition freeze for Memorial University.

The freeze came into effect in 2005, when the oil and gas industry was at its finest: crude oil prices hit new heights, the White Rose oil field had just started production, and Memorial students from this province far outnumbered those from elsewhere.

Almost a decade later, the university’s operating budget has grown while provincial student enrolment and high school graduating classes have shrunk. But – partially thanks to Memorial’s recruitment effort and lowest-in-Canada tuition fees – out-of-province enrolment has increased significantly. And oil prices have gone right down the shitter.

The very day these conversations about tuition were happening, provincial Finance Minister Ross Wiseman announced a projected deficit of $916-million due to the lowest oil prices in 5 years. We haven’t seen a deficit like that since 2004, when it ended up being $914-million – the highest ever recorded.

Because 33 per cent of memorial students are from outside the province or outside Canada, Auditor General Paddon says the provincial government are giving the university roughly $388-million a year,  and it’s a lot of taxpayer’s dollars for a lot of non-taxpayers to enjoy the same benefits.

International students pay more tuition than Canadian students, so Paddon says the issue is moreso about how the government wants the low-tuition policy to work, in terms of who gets the most from it – and if we can even afford it at this point.

Canadian undergraduate students at Memorial pay $2,550 for a full year’s tuition. That’s the same as students from Newfoundland and Labrador – much like students from this province pay the same as their Canadian peers at other universities in Canada, except Quebec. Quebec universities charge students an out-of-province supplement, but not as much as international students.

And international students at Memorial pay $8,800 for a full year’s tuition. While one third of Memorial students are from outside Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a mix of Canadian and international students – and we don’t totally know how many of them stay.

When asked if there could be a sweet spot – a reasonable amount of money from the pockets of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to the university for the benefit of all students, like a return-on-investment – Paddon said there is, it’s just not his place to say what it is. That’s more of a government policy kind of thing, looking at what out-of-province students bring to the table and how long they stay. Plus, one might want to calculate how many students from this province study in other provinces, thereby enjoying the benefits of provincial funding to those institutions.

Now, Memorial University President Dr. Gary Kachanoski and Canadian Federation of Students chairperson Travis Perry both say out-of-province students bring the province significant benefits as well; spending out-of-province money, enriching the student experience at MUN, increasing enrolment, and staying here when they graduate – which is critical with our ageing population.

Dr. Kachanoski says you can really see it in graduate students – 10 per cent arrive married, 70 per cent are married by graduation.

Even in our darkest fiscal days, there’s a lot of love and hope in this ol’ smiling land.