Last December, Danny Williams stepped down as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. When he did, he was the most popular premier in Canada.
While Williams will be remembered by most as a fighter who brought his province from have-not to have status, one of the best-kept secrets in Canadian social policy is that he was also one of Canada’s greatest champions of affordable postsecondary education.
In the mid-1990s, Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy was in ruins. The cod fishery, on which many of the province’s people had built their livelihoods, had been shut down. Government funding for universities and colleges throughout Canada was decreasing in light of very significant federal spending cuts, and tuition fees for Newfoundland and Labrador’s students had increased by almost 150 per cent over a very short period.
By the late 1990s, student debt in Newfoundland and Labrador (on a per capita basis) was the highest in the country, and postsecondary enrolment in the province had begun to decrease substantially.
In 1999, then-Premier Brian Tobin implemented a tuition freeze in response to province-wide protests by students. Two years later, Tobin’s successor, Roger Grimes, implemented a three-year plan to reduce tuition fees by 25 per cent.
Admittedly, by the time Danny Williams was swept into office in 2003, the momentum had shifted. Newfoundland and Labrador had begun to lead the way in terms of postsecondary accessibility, in large part by going against the national trend of annual tuition fee increases.
But Williams, who won almost every seat in the provincial legislature that year, could have easily put things on auto pilot. He didn’t.
In 2007, the Williams government had both continued the tuition fee freeze and implemented an up-front, non-repayable, needs-based grant system for all postsecondary students. The same year, the interest rate on the provincial portion of all outstanding and future student loans was reduced from prime plus 2.5 per cent to prime.
In 2009, the Williams government went even further, eliminating the interest rate charges on the provincial portion of student loans. Also in 2009, the needs-based grant system became even more generous.
Since 2003, the Williams government has increased funding for postsecondary education in Newfoundland and Labrador by about 82 per cent.
Not surprisingly, Memorial University of Newfoundland has used this good news to its advantage when recruiting new students, using slogans such as “the tuition advantage” and “incredibly affordable tuitions fees.” And their strategy is working.
After years of declining enrolment, Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic have been experiencing enrolment increases despite a constantly declining youth demographic in the province. According to a 2008 report from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, enrolment at Memorial University by students from the surrounding provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island had increased more than tenfold in the previous seven years. In that same time, tuition fees in those three provinces had increased by roughly 50 per cent as Newfoundland’s had dropped. This is no coincidence.
On the postsecondary education front, the positive impacts of the progressive policies of successive provincial governments in Newfoundland and Labrador are beginning to bear fruit. Not only is enrolment increasing, but student debt is decreasing, as is the number of students and families who have to rely on the student aid system to pursue a postsecondary education.
In the late 1990s, there were over 20,000 Newfoundland and Labrador students in debt, and student debt averaged over $30,000 per student. Ten years later, the number of students who rely on the student aid system has dropped to roughly 8,000, and student debt in the province has, on average, decreased by over $5,000 per student.
By contrast, tuition fees have been increasing steadily on an annual basis in Ontario, and Canada’s largest province now has the dubious distinction of having the highest tuition fees in Canada. As a result, average student debt for a four-year degree in Ontario has increased by 175 per cent in the past 15 years.
Today, average undergraduate tuition fees in Newfoundland and Labrador are $2,624 per year for a domestic student, compared with $5,138 for Canada as a whole, $5,318 in oil-rich Alberta, and $6,307 in Ontario.
Students are not the only ones happy with Newfoundland and Labrador’s postsecondary education performance. Voters like the new direction too. According to a recent Harris/Decima poll, 85 per cent of voters in that province agree with the idea of progressively reducing tuition fees to the point where they’re eliminated altogether.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent experience with postsecondary education has three important implications for the rest of Canada.
First, government investment in making postsecondary education more affordable can yield tangible results. Indeed, while some cynics might dismiss the Danny Williams approach as “throwing money at the problem,” Williams has shown that investing in the right places results in meaningful outcomes, such as higher student enrolment (particularly for those from lower-income households) and lower student debt.
Second, the Danny Williams experience casts serious doubt on the notion that the cost to students of a postsecondary education has a negligible impact on behaviour.
Third, in an era when many politicians have convinced themselves that the fastest way to a voter’s heart is through tax cuts, Newfoundland and Labrador’s experience demonstrates that substantially increasing funding for postsecondary education can also be politically popular.
When Premier Williams stepped down, Angus Reid’s vice-president stated that Williams’ popularity was “extraordinary by Canadian standards.” By contrast, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is behind in the polls by a considerable margin as university students in his province pay the highest tuition fees in Canada.
As McGuinty tries to differentiate himself from other party leaders, he’d be well advised to look at Danny Williams’ record on postsecondary education. If making a postsecondary education affordable worked on the Rock, it can work in other provinces too.
Keith Dunne is Newfoundland and Labrador Organizer for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Nick Falvo, a PhD candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, is Vice-President Finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the CFS).