A frenzied crowd in St. John’s chanted angrily and applauded loudly for speaker after
speaker who stood up to denounce provincial government budget cuts to the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) that have affected multiple programs.
Similar protests took place over the lunch hour Wednesday at CNA campuses across Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I’ve seen the photos of the protests happening right now … right across the province in 15 communities,” said Michael Walsh, provincial chairman for the Canadian Federation of Students, “and I know that we are sending a clear message to government. Funding for College of the North Atlantic, for affordable, high-quality education, has to be a priority, and the people of this province will accept nothing less.”
Amongst the more prominent programs eliminated from CNA was the adult basic education (ABE) program. Private institutions and community organizations will be tasked with taking over the service. The Department of Advanced Education and Skills has said the move was made in an attempt to bring costs for government on a per person basis down to a comparable level with that of other provinces.
Walsh said that is the wrong way to handle ABE services. He said education is a right and that ABE should not be used to line the pocketbooks of private enterprise.
“Nobody could have anticipated the privatization of one of our college’s most cherished programs. Without consultation, without any planning, it was announced on budget day that ABE would be ripped from its proper place at our college and sold to the lowest bidder.”
Meaghan Smith, an ABE student at CNA’s Seal Cove campus, worries how those who need the service in rural areas will manage.
“Once privatized, what are ABE students in more remote parts of the province going to do? Pack up and hope to get into a private college in an urban centre? This isn’t good enough.”
Smith said CNA is the best-equipped institution in the province to offer ABE, given it has campuses across the province that can reach people in those remote areas. As private institutions in the province have been known to close their doors and leave students in the lurch, Smith says, she worries it could happen again to ABE students.
She also questioned the notion that students will not be affected financially by the move given their studies are funded through employment insurance.
“I, for one, am not funded,” she said. Smith said the cost of school for her at a private college is beyond her financial means, given she currently works a minimum-wage job to support her education.
“I’m working a minimum wage job to better my chances at finding a good-paying job in our robust economy, and now my second chance is under threat from this government. These cuts surely weren’t in the youth-retention strategy. We’re all left trying to figure out what will happen next.”
Referencing the Department of Justice’s plan to review cuts it made to the court system in the most recent budget, Smith suggested Advanced Education and Skills should do that same with cuts to the college.
A reported 149 jobs at the college were affected by the cuts in programs such as first-year engineering technology, visual arts, and comprehensive arts and sciences, amongst others. A total of 25 programs at 16 campuses were affected, not including ABE.
Union leader Carol Furlong from the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees said that given the provincial government is planning to conduct an efficiency review looking at post-secondary institutions, it is likely more cuts to public education are on the horizon.
“They announced in their budget that there will be a comprehensive review of the college next year,” said Furlong. “We believe this would provide opportunity for consultation with the stakeholders. It is clear there are more cuts to come. Based on their track record, it is unlikely they are going to consult with employees and students. We were taken off guard to learn cuts were already underway and privatization was in the works.”
Memorial University student Nick Wells attended the protest to voice his concerns at what might be in store for his school as a result of that review. A classics student at MUN, he worries programs like his could be cut.
“I feel like if (CNA) is losing their courses, we could lose our courses,” he said. “Might as well show our support. It’s the same struggle, so you’ve got to get out there.”
Maruf Ruhul, an international student studying business at MUN, said it was the low tuition rates that attracted him to the school. He worries an efficiency review could put an end to the longstanding tuition freeze.
“I’m thinking about having my younger brother coming here to study at MUN, and if they increase the tuition, it will be impossible for us to afford the education that we would want to have.”
Kristie LePatourel, president of the Ridge Road campus student council of CNA, said Wednesday’s protests were held to make sure people in Newfoundland and Labrador can continue to obtain the skills necessary to contribute to the economy.
“It’s about ensuring hard-working Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have access to high-quality adult basic education,” she said. “It’s about sending a message to the government that we will not stand for cuts to our college.”