Bill Waiser

The short life of Sask’s grain-for-tuition plan

It’s not unusual these days for students to graduate from university with not just a diploma, but several thousands of dollars in debt.

In fact, some university students hold down part-time jobs while attending school. Others take only a few classes each year to try to cover their expenses as they earn their degrees.

The problem 50 years ago, however, was not necessarily the cost of post-secondary education, but too much unsold grain.

In the late 1960s, Saskatchewan lived up to its reputation as the wheat province by producing some of the largest crops in its history.

The record harvest in 1966 plugged the grain handling system at the same time that world demand and prices began to fall.

But farmers never reduced their wheat production because of their dependence on the crop, and actually seeded an even larger acreage the following year.

Wheat constituted two-thirds of total farm sales in the province at the time.
By 1969 and the harvest of the third-largest wheat crop in Saskatchewan history, the province’s farms were literally swimming in unsold wheat.

It was estimated that 400 million bushels were in storage in all kinds of makeshift bins, including former one-room schools.

To help alleviate the distress and ensure that farm families could afford to send their children to university, the Ross Thatcher Liberal government, in co-operation with the University of Saskatchewan, introduced a grain-for-fees program for the 1969-70 academic year.

Students – in this case, farmers or the children of farmers – were able to pay a portion of their university fees in either wheat, barley or oats at Canadian Wheat Board prices. The value was credited against the student’s account, up to a maximum of $300. That represented almost three-quarters of the cost of tuition in 1969-70.

The only qualification was student need … and the ability to get the grain to a specified delivery point. It could not simply be trucked down the road to the nearest elevator.

That’s when the complaints started. Some student participants were shocked to learn that they had to take their grain to either Cumberland House or Green Lake. And the shipping costs would reduce their tuition benefit.

Consequently, only 258 students out of an approved 300 participated in the program. But that did not deter the provincial government from offering another grain-fortuition credit the following year. This time, though, the Thatcher government removed wheat from the list of eligible grains because there was too much on hand.

Student leaders responded by questioning the effectiveness and fairness of the program, and the government cancelled its participation for the 1970-71 school year. That left the University of Saskatchewan with its own grain-for-fees program: oats and barley for experimental feed purposes. But before delivery could be made to the university farm, a test sample had to be checked for quality.

In the end, the program may not have provided much relief to the province’s wheat farmers who were unable to move their crop.

But it represented one of the most unusual ways of paying university tuition fees in higher education history.

Students today who face annually increasing tuition costs would probably welcome such bold thinking.

Addendum: In response to my recent column about the Northwest Territories’ first capital at Fort Livingstone, John Lyons informed me that the early settlers in the Swan River area used to boil the snakes in large pots and then feed them to their pigs.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix


Photograph: U of S Archives and Special Collections