‘Big Reset’ Will Corrode Higher Education

By Josh Lepawsky, Professor of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador

The ‘Big Reset’, the final report and recommendations submitted by Moya Greene as Chair of the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT) proposes cuts of over $100 million from the post-secondary education budget between now and 2026.

These cuts will lower educational quality by eliminating courses, or even entire programs, for thousands of students and will result in significant job losses from the higher education sector in the province.

If implemented, these massive cuts will severely damage the social, cultural, and economic prospects of a bright future for Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the early 1980s, Canada spent 0.5% of GDP on public higher-education. Today, the percentage has declined to 0.19% of GDP. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the PERT report will erode this further.

What Moya Green and the rest of the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team seem to be missing is that education is vital infrastructure for our province.

Strong, comprehensive, and universally accessible education is just as important as the sidewalks, roads, and bridges that connect us to each other and the local economy. It is infrastructure that people in Newfoundland and Labrador have a right to and deserve.

For many years, affordable access to higher education was broadly considered a public good. That view changed radically 25 years ago when the federal government slashed federal transfer funding for post-secondary education. Since then, federal and provincial governments of all stripes have continually corroded  government support of public higher education.

When it comes to tuition, Newfoundland and Labrador was an exception to that regressive and backward thinking trend until earlier this year when the province cut its support for a continued tuition freeze and the university responded by more than doubling tuition costs. The tuition freeze happened largely because of forceful student action in the late 1990s. They marched on the Confederation Building and they blocked Prince Phillip Drive.

In the words of former Premier, Brian Tobin, “Students made it impossible for me not to freeze tuition fees.

Achieving and maintaining the tuition freeze was something Newfoundland and Labradorians could be proud of. It kept higher education accessible and attracted students from all over Canada and the world.

Yet, as the Post-Secondary Review documented, while tuition fees were frozen, the operating budget for the province's only university has been cut every year since 2015. Meanwhile, maintenance of campus infrastructure has been deferred to the point of literal collapse, all while foregoing faculty renewal, leading to the inability to offer core competency in fields that are fundamental to the province’s well being.

Implementing the recommendations in the PERT report, including the cuts that were made earlier this summer, will only make these trends worse.

Most of the recent talk around the future of Memorial University has framed it as being a cost to the public purse. That totally ignores the myriad benefits created by higher education. For example, Statistics Canada data show that the education sector in NL has a higher economic multiplier than the oil and gas sector in terms of GDP. The effect is even higher for jobs. That’s not an argument for pitting one sector against another but does highlight the fact that the higher education sector offers returns above and beyond its costs. It creates jobs and economic activity. It cultivates people who can think and do across fields and attracts students to this beautiful province who could stay and build their lives here, using their education and training to build our province.

To anyone who believes that means only engineering and the physical sciences are part of the mission, I ask you to imagine weathering this pandemic in the absence of literature, music, film and television, or video games and then argue that the arts and humanities don’t matter.

Tying post-secondary learning to focused and targeted ‘job market’ strategies means education can easily fall victim to the whims of market economies. The recent history of financial crises -- from the ‘dot com bubble’, to the credit crisis of 2008 -- are ample evidence that business organizations--for whom laser-like focus on ‘return on investment’, profits, and the like--do not offer a good model for public higher education. Businesses have consistently and dramatically failed to be ‘future proof’. They are not especially good at anticipating future job-market requirements--as thousands of suddenly-unemployed tech workers a decade or so ago can attest.

Among a university’s core ‘value propositions’ is precisely that the work it does can move slowly and methodically, rather than be tied to quarterly business cycles of the private sector or government mandated for-profit operation.

The PERT report seems to think that private sector investment will simply step in to pick up the slack as the government cuts funding to research and teaching. There are two possible outcomes here. One, the private sector doesn’t step in and the University shrinks even further; or two, private sector demands cause research to be directed toward private benefits, rather than the broader public good.

One concrete example of this is Connaught Labs. When the lab was tied to the University of Toronto it developed insulin, treatments for diphtheria, and many other public health vaccinations that, today, form a taken-for-granted backbone of public health in Canada and abroad. After its transformation to a profit-driven lab by the elder Trudeau and Mulroney governments, Connaught’s management “sacrificed research and development programs for short-term profits, and the strategy was not working”.

It was precisely the absence of a need to make a profit that meant the lab was able to do the detailed public health research that led it to solve the public health solutions our world still relies on today.

Furthermore, rather than covering university revenues via tuition fees it would be far more beneficial to reduce tuition to zero, as has been done in the past at Memorial, and, enable students at the university to spend more of their money into the provincial economy in a myriad of other ways including basic necessities  (and even funding their own startup initiatives). At a time when our population is declining and we are attempting to find ways to both attract and retain young people in this province, removing up front barriers to post-secondary education while reducing debt loads should be a no-brainer.

There are many free and low cost Universities in Europe and elsewhere. It’s time for the province to follow suit and refund higher education, including the teaching and the research core to its mission, to foster the skills and abilities of current and future Newfoundland and Labradorians and recognize higher education for the public good it is.