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Students are pictured on the St. John's campus of Memorial University in September, 2013.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

A decade ago, Newfoundland and Labrador political leaders decided to swim against the nationwide tide of university funding cuts by reducing tuition fees and then freezing them.

Now the province is reaping the rewards of that strategy. Government funding makes up 85 per cent ($480-million) of the budget of the province's only university, Memorial University, with 15 per cent coming from tuition. Already boasting the lowest tuition fees in the country, provincial officials are also noticing the unintended consequences of a policy aimed at educating their own kids.

"We were in a very serious deficit position," Newfoundland and Labrador's Minister of Advanced Education Joan Shea said about the decision made 10 years ago. "We wanted to make sure in order to move this province forward we needed our young people to be educated, and we felt that an investment in education could not go wrong."

Elsewhere, Canadian universities receive about 55 per cent of their funding from provincial governments. Although Newfoundland taxpayers are footing the bill, some of the students from elsewhere who came to Memorial, in part because of low tuition fees, are deciding to stay and work in the province, making it an economic tradeoff.

"We have a declining birth rate and aging population and we also have less and less students graduating every year from our high schools," noted Ms. Shea. "… we are not having a declining enrolment in our postsecondary school institutions."

Newfoundland's success hasn't gone unnoticed in Nova Scotia, where student leaders are taking advantage of the provincial election, called just last week, to turn the tide in their favour, too.

Jonathan Williams, executive director of StudentsNS, an alliance of the province's postsecondary student associations, said the low tuition rates are an attraction, driving Nova Scotia students to the Rock.

Memorial has an enrolment of more than 18,000 students – 13,300 of whom are from the province, compared to 3,200 from the rest of the Canada (nearly 1,000 of those students are from Nova Scotia and more than 600 from Ontario) and about 1,600 international students. Tuition is about $2,550 and residence fees are subsidized so that students pay about $3,200 for eight months compared to around $6,000 to $7,000 at other universities.

"The big consequence of the cost of university that is a concern for everyone is debt and there is significant evidence in Nova Scotia if you have more debt you are less likely to stay here after graduation," Mr. Williams said. "You are more likely to go elsewhere where you can make as much money as possible to pay off your debt as fast as possible."

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tracked tuition fees, projecting increases to 2016-2017. It showed that the average tuition for a Canadian university in 1990-91 was $2,243 compared to $6,842 in 2016-17. In Nova Scotia, fees will increase from $2,974 in 1990-91 to $6,969 in 2016-17; in Newfoundland and Labrador fees will increase from $2,059 in 1990-91 to a projected $2,655 in 2016-17. In Quebec, where students protested threatened fee increases, tuition will climb to $3,759. Ontario will have the highest fees in the country at $8,756.

Mr. Williams's group is lobbying the party leaders during the campaign, leading up to the Oct. 8 vote, and wants a freeze on tuition until youth employment recovers. Tuition fees in Nova Scotia vary between $6,000 and $7,270.

Dr. Gary Kachanoski, president of Memorial University, says the lower fees are obviously an added bonus for his school. "We have seen since 2000 … going from 95 per cent of our students being from Newfoundland to 75 per cent all in …," he said. "So, I think it's been a selling point, no question about it for people who want to come here, which has been great for the university and great for the province in terms of bringing in young people."

But Alex Usher, an expert on higher education, is critical of studies sensationalizing the cost of education: "Not because I think they're wrong on the very narrow issue of what sticker prices of tuition are, but because they deliberately and misleadingly leave out any reference to the $4-billion in tax credits and grants that are spent by governments every year to reduce tuition burden on families."

He believes these kinds of studies underplay the "true affordability" of university.

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