Minister declines interview, says promise ‘subject to financial considerations’
— File photo
Close to halfway through the Dunderdale government’s mandate, hope is fading on one of its big-ticket 2011 campaign promises: get rid of student loans.
The PC Party Blue Book said that if it was re-elected, Dunderdale’s government would “eliminate the provincial student loan over four years, and replace it with an up-front, needs-based grant.”
The promise was made during the election campaign, at a time when the provincial government was running a budget surplus and had plenty of cash in the bank. But all of the PC party’s election promises came with a caveat: they would only be implemented if the provincial government could afford it.
This spring, Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy said the government was forecasting $1.6-billion in deficits for this year and next year, and to combat that, the government had to lay off close to 1,000 civil servants.
In his spring budget Kennedy slashed programs and made cuts across the board. A review of post-secondary education is expected to result in further cuts to Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic next year.
Michael Walsh, provincial representative for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), said the current fiscal climate is worrying, but the government hasn’t said anything to him to indicate that it plans on breaking the promise.
“We certainly haven’t heard that there’s any new plan outside of the plan that they promised during the election in 2011,” he said.
The CFS has been hugely supportive of the government’s moves to maintain a freeze on tuition fees over the past decade and introduce grants for students.
“The government has done tremendous work in creating a system of post-secondary education that’s the envy of people across the country. They’ve created a system that’s actually working,” Walsh said. “I certainly don’t feel that this is the time to go back on any of that fantastic work that’s been done.”
Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons is a bit more skeptical.
“I’m hoping they live up to the big talk,” Parsons said. “But based on everything we’ve seen, it’s really hard to believe that it’s going to happen any time, and it’ll probably just go back into their next campaign booklet.”
Kevin O’Brien, acting minister of Advanced Education and Skills, would not do an interview with The Telegram for this story. John Tompkins, director of communications for Advanced Education and Skills said he was “not available” to speak, but he emailed a statement to The Telegram on O’Brien’s behalf.
“As stated in the 2011 Policy Blue Book, the Provincial Government remains committed to the elimination of provincial student loans and replacing them with up-front needs-based grants,” the emailed statement said.
“This commitment remains subject to financial considerations, which will occur in consultation with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the pre-Budget process.”
New Democrat MHA Dale Kirby said if the government feels like it can’t afford to replace the student loans with grants, that’s because of Tory fiscal mismanagement.
“They have made choices as a government, and the population will have to live with them until someone else has the opportunity to govern the province,” he said. “What’s been enacted from their platform? Bill 29, and then not a whole lot else. I mean, pilot projects here and there for some of the more substantive parts of their platform, but not a lot has been done, so I’m not really surprised.”
The PC party platform also promised government initiatives that will save the government money in the long run would be enacted early on, in order to maximize the benefits.
Parsons said that definitely applies to eliminating student loans, because it gets more people educated and more young people into the workforce.
“If we have more people availing of education and making it more accessible, then there’s got to be positives down the road when it comes to people getting out into the workforce,” he said.
“I’d like to think that the cost would be, I guess, positively counteracted by the impacts on the other end.”