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MUN’s purpose, direction questioned as fee hikes loom

By: | June 8, 2015

Between the provincial government’s April 30 funding cuts to Memorial University and a July 10 MUN Board of Regents vote that could see significant tuition and residence fee increases for many students, a conversation is emerging about the whole reason the university exists in the first place.

Student and faculty unions at Memorial University are calling for solidarity and open dialogue within the university community and for a reversal of the provincial government's recent cuts to MUN's budget. Photo by Justin Brake.

It’s a good thing universities engage in the production of knowledge and critical thinking because Memorial University is facing some tough decisions in the lead-up to a July Board of Regents meeting that could see the school’s official decision-making body vote to make education less accessible for a lot of students.

In its 2015 budget announcement on April 30 the Paul Davis Government cut funding to the university by $49.4 million, and out of discussions with the university came a proposal that the school’s Board of Regents vote on a 30 per cent hike of international and graduate student tuition and on-campus residence fees.

But news of the proposed cost increases for students, and of a deferred payment to the faculty pension plan, hasn’t come without a firestorm of opposition from students and faculty, who argue that while the cost of education is increasing and faculty job security is decreasing, the number of people employed in Memorial University’s senior administration earning six-figure salaries has ballooned in recent years.

It’s a trend that’s sweeping the globe — institutions of higher learning are evolving into big businesses with large bureaucracies, and critics say schools are now operating on the premise that education is more a commodity than a right or a necessity in fostering a healthy society.

Students concerned and “terrified”

At a recent town hall organized by the Canadian Federation of Students and its member unions—which include the Memorial University Student Union (MUNSU), the university’s Graduate Student Union (GSU), the Grenfell Campus Students’ Union and the Marine Institute Students’ Union—to discuss the proposed tuition fee hikes, a few dozen students shared their concerns. Many said a 30 per cent increase in the cost of tuition would force them to abandon their degrees and return home in debt and without the education they came to Canada for.

Dozens of international students expressed concern over the proposed tuition fee hikes at the May 14 town hall organized by the student unions. Many students said a 30 per cent increase in their tuition fees would force them to abandon their degrees. Photo by Justin Brake.

Dozens of international students expressed concern over the proposed tuition fee hikes at the May 14 town hall organized by the student unions. Many students said a 30 per cent increase in their tuition fees would force them to abandon their degrees. Photo by Justin Brake.

“Students are coming to us — hundreds of students. And they’re angry and they’re terrified,” MUNSU Executive Director of Student Life Brittany Lennox told the packed lecture hall of about 150.

“The province has a budget of more than $8 billion. The university has a budget of more than $318 million,” she continued. “The government and university have said they want to raise $6.7 million from increased student fees. Those fee hikes are a drop in the bucket from those major budgets we just heard about, but for students they are huge, detrimental impacts to their lives.

“The international students that are on campus now are the highest users of the campus food bank. Not only that, but international students already pay upwards of three, four times as much as their Canadian [counterparts at other universities] for the same education. So we just want to point out that the system we already have is already an awful form of discrimination.”

Lennox also said that if the proposed 30 per cent residence fee hikes are implemented, students from rural Newfoundland and Labrador will be disproportionately impacted since 80 per cent of students living on campus are Canadian, more than half of them from rural parts of this province. The proposed residence fee increases will amount to about $1,000 per academic year, she said.

“Often those students already have to take out more student debt than their urban counterparts, and this will be even more of a burden.”

Meanwhile, the GSU’s Executive Director of Communication, Hesam Hassan Nejad, told The Independent he has heard from many international students who, like himself, came to Newfoundland to study at Memorial University because it was one of the few quality post-secondary institutions whose tuition fees they could afford.

Hesam Hassan Nejad of the MUN Graduate Students' Union says...  Photo by Justin Brake.

Hesam Hassan Nejad of the MUN Graduate Students’ Union says international students have been coming to him to express concern over their inability to manage a 30 per cent tuition fee hike should the school’s Board of Regents vote in favour of the increase in July. Photo by Justin Brake.

“I decided to come to Canada and I considered high-quality universities,” he said, “and among those I chose Memorial University because the tuition freeze has been continuing for a long time…and I knew I could survive in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

A third-year PhD student from Iran, Hassan Nejad said he hopes to graduate before the proposed tuition fee hikes—if they are approved by MUN’s Board of Regents next month—come into effect in 2016, but worries about his fellow graduate students who he says will bear the brunt of the government cuts.

“A lot of people have sent me emails and a lot of them have come to my office and they’ve said, ‘This would destroy our lives, this would affect our lives here, our studies here — we would not be able to focus on our studies because we would have to work,’” he said. “’Or maybe we will have to abandon our studies because it would be [financially] very difficult for us.’”

Hassam Nejad also pointed out that MUN’s graduate student funding packages are low compared to other Canadian universities, and even non-existent for many students.

“Many do not receive any money from Memorial University for graduate studies,” he explained. “Many graduate students have families, many of them have [partners] and children here, and this may have a detrimental impact on their lives.”

Warren Moore, a geography undergraduate student from London, England, told The Independent he feels the university wasn’t up front with him about the possibility of a thaw of tuition fees.

Now in the third year of his degree, Moore said that when he was recruited by a MUN representative at an event in London he was given the impression the tuition freeze would remain in place for the duration of his studies. He was told, he said, that the total cost of his education—including travel to Canada, living expenses and tuition—would total about $80,000.

Moore said he came to Canada because the government in his country made post-secondary education inaccessible for him and many others. Unable to afford to graduate tens of thousands of pounds in debt, he looked at moving away for school. So when he learned of the quality of education MUN offered, coupled with the security of a tuition freeze, he made the choice to move to Newfoundland.

“It was set out how much a four-year degree was going to cost, and it’s based on those figures that you’re given—you assume in good faith that you can then make a decision on where you’re going to apply in the world,” he recalled.

Concerned about the possibility of a tuition fee increase this fall, Moore wrote to MUN President Gary Kachanoski to seek confirmation of the rumours he had heard whirling about.

In an email reply Kachanoski told Moore administration is “not yet in a position to provide definitive answers to your questions regarding fees. I would note, however that the university calendar does provide The University with the right to make changes to the regulations, fees and charges listed therein. (See Section 3 of the University Calendar).”

Moore said the president’s response only further added to the sense of injustice he felt.

 It also feels like they’re holding us ransom because we can’t go [home] because we’ll leave halfway through a degree without any qualification, but we can’t stay because we might not be able to afford it. — MUN student Warren Moore

“It leads us down the path of feeling we’ve been misrepresented because it’s actually not what we were sold,” he explained. “And I think it also feels like they’re holding us ransom because we can’t go [home] because we’ll leave halfway through a degree without any qualification, but we can’t stay because we might not be able to afford it.”

The fact Kachanoski used the MUN university calendar to justify the administration’s decision to consider a 30 per cent tuition hike too was disingenuous, he said.

“That particular phrase really annoys me because the university calendar is something that of course you’re not even aware of until you arrive here.”

Two weeks after the cuts were announced in the provincial budget—and after Moore’s email exchange with Kachanoski—MUN administration announced due to the shortness of time between the budget and the impending academic year any tuition fee increases will not take effect until 2016.

Moore said he was relieved by the announcement, but that he is still concerned about the international students who are arriving at MUN this fall and who likely have no idea their tuition fees could increase by almost one-third at the beginning of their second year.

“[The delay] gives me time to try and find extra work and scrape some money together, so it’s not as bad a disaster as it could have been,” he said. “But we’ve got people coming this September — have they been told their fees are going to go up? Do they even know? I think the university really should be contacting these people to let them know.

“Given these people will have six weeks from [the time of the Board of Regents vote in July] to be told — are they going to be told, or are they going to get the response that I did, that you should have read the university calendar?

Representatives from the GSU and CFS told The Independent they have heard similar stories from other international students who were given the impression during recruitment that tuition fees would not increase mid-degree.

Faculty members respond

Memorial University Faculty Association (MUNFA) President George Jenner told The Independent the faculty union stands with the students in opposition to the proposed tuition and residence fee hikes and is gravely concerned about the deferred $20.9 million payment to MUN’s pension plan.

He said a couple weeks ago the MUN student, faculty and labour unions all convened for a meeting he said was unprecedented, at least in recent memory.

“We’re trying to establish solidarity between the different units so that we can confront the university and not have them use politics to try and pit one group against [the other],” he explained.

MUNFA President George Jenner.

MUNFA President George Jenner.

“We don’t want them saying, ‘Well if we don’t increase the fees of students then we’re going to have to cut staff or somewhere else in the university.’ The budget has got more room in it than they’re willing to admit. What they’re not telling us is what priorities they have in the budget and explain to us why those are so important that something can’t be moved or not done for a while.”

Jenner is also concerned about MUN’s willingness to spend large sums of money without better engaging other parts of the university community in discussions and decision-making processes at a time when the school is under pressure to cut costs and potentially charge students more for their education.

“We’re looking for an explanation from the university about their budget priorities,” he said. “They’ve only presented us so far with a scenario in which the students get hit pretty hard and the MUNFA pension plan gets hit pretty hard. And our question is — and I think a lot of people are looking around and saying [this]: Why are we mortgaging the future of the university on a new science building, for example? We all agree we need new infrastructure at Memorial, but we would like to know that when money is spent on infrastructure it’s done in a rational way that meets the needs of the most number of people it can.”

English Professor Danine Farquharson recently taught a graduate course entitled “Contemporary Literary Theory and Practice: The University in Ruins? The Idea and Use of the University,” in which she and her students explored various conceptions and interpretations of ‘The University’.

Farquharson remembers a time when the phrase ‘the university’ was generally used to refer to faculty, “the teachers”, but that has changed, she said.

“When people refer to ‘the university’, they’re talking about the administration: ‘The university has decided that’, ‘The university is reacting to the provincial budget’ this way, they are ‘responding to it’,” she said, offering examples. “And that’s a significant shift. I’m not sure what the repercussions of it are but it’s an interesting shift.

“So the university’s not a coherent thing — and object in people’s minds in all of its complexity.”

Farquharson said she would like to see the current financial predicament the university is in “placed in a context, or a conversation or a rhetoric, around what the university is supposed to be doing.

 Is education a public good, or is it a tool for gaining skills and training? And of course it should be both of those things. — Prof. Danine Farquharson

“There’s a really strong divide at the moment among people like me, who work in universities, among students who talk about their university experiences, and certainly among administrators who have to deal with the institution as a whole,” she explained. “There’s a divide and a not-very-well-thought-through difference between talking about the university as a site for training and the university as a place for education. I’m not saying in any way that training and education are mutually exclusive, but those two words…are full of cultural values that aren’t being explored.”

That distinction is worth drawing out in the current conversation, she said.

“People refer to their university education in terms of, ‘How is going to train me for a job?’ It’s career training. You go to university and you get a job,” she explained. “And a lot of people in my department, and certainly in others, often sit back and say, ‘Whatever happened to education for its own sake? Or education as a public good?’ That’s part of the anxiety around talking about the university, however we define it or whatever we mean by that. Is education a public good, or is it a tool for gaining skills and training? And of course it should be both of those things.

“When it comes to tuition, if education is a public good, then I believe tuition should be free,” she continued. “However, education is more than just a public good, and not everybody would agree with me that the purpose of a university is to educate minds and people for some sort of intangible good. And that’s why we’ve got very conflicting arenas around talking about things like student tuition.”

A need for inclusion and transparency

Jenner said above all MUN senior administration needs to be more inclusive and transparent in its discussions with students and faculty and in the decisions it makes.

“I think the concern that everybody has is that [administration is] talking at us, not to us. And I think the students picked up on that right away, from what I gathered from the meeting that we had,” he explained. “If we want to have a discussion with the university about how to resolve these issues, then it has to be a conversation in which they listen. And it’s not clear that they’re willing to listen.

“I think we’re all conscious of the fact that the Newfoundland economy is going to be in for a hard ride for a while, and that we are expecting to be asked, like everybody else, to make sacrifices,” Jenner continued. “But on what basis are we going to make them, or do they need to be made? Are there other things that we can do?

“The problem that we have is that very little of what goes on at our university is very transparent. In spite of the fact that they say they want to communicate with us, they basically keep information under very tight control.

“And basically our ability to participate in this debate about the future of the university depends on us having the information available to do independent, objective evaluations. And that’s what we’re not getting.”

MUN Provost and V.P. Academic responds

The Independent requested an interview with MUN President Gary Kachanoski on May 15, the day after the town hall organized by MUN’s student unions, and was told by MUN Acting Associate Director of Communications David Sorensen that the president was not available, but that Sorensen would get answers if questions were forwarded by email.

Questions were emailed by The Independent the same day and Sorensen said a response would not be forthcoming until the middle of the following week. So The Independent again requested a phone interview with the president for the following week, assuming the president would be available at that time and willing to engage with the media given problem is a top priority for the university administration, the email from The Independent said.

“Addressing the problem is the president’s priority, which means he doesn’t have time for an interview,” Sorensen replied, offering only a statement from “the university” that did not answer any of the five questions forwarded by The Independent.

Another interview request was made by The Independent on May 22, to which Sorensen replied that the president was not available, but to try again on June 1.

Another email was sent to Sorensen on June 1 requesting an interview with Kachanoski, but Sorensen responded: “The president is out of the province this week and not available for interviews.”

The Independent was able to reach MUN Provost and Vice-President Academic Noreen Golfman, however.

Golfman said she sympathizes with the students and knows “students are feeling victimized” by the proposed tuition and residence fee hikes. “But, I have to say I’m feeling victimized by it — we’re all feeling that way,” she continued. “We believe—certainly those of us who are leading this institution, and I’m sure students do too—that Memorial’s absolutely vital for the social and economic health of this province.”

The provost said that in the coming weeks the Planning and Budget Senate Committee, which includes students and faculty members, will be “engaged…in talking through possible solutions to the cards we’ve been dealt,” and that there’s “no way that the weight of the consequences of the provincial budget is going to fall exclusively on the students. It’s unfortunate, but it’s most likely that they’re going to have to share in the pain that all of us are going to be experiencing.

“What we’re trying to do as much as possible…is preserve as much as we can the integrity of the institutional programs—the core deliveries we’re responsible for,” she continued. “We need to keep and honour our commitment to delivering courses and programs.”

Responding to concerns that administration is not being inclusive and transparent enough in its decision-making processes, Golfman said she is committed to transparency and that the university’s established decision-making process will unfold with MUN Senate and then the Board of Regents.

 I  think there’s some comfort in knowing it’s an election year, frankly, because we’ll have…an extended debate on all kinds of things related to the social and economic well-being of this province. — MUN Provost and Vice President Academic Noreen Golfman

“You have to rely, in good governance, on the processes you have in place,” she said. “We’re committed to as open and transparent a discussion as is practicably possible.”

The Planning and Budget Committee will be “looking at everything” and its deliberations will be “communicated as widely and appropriately as possible,” she explained.

“I think we’re getting a handle on the next [few] weeks and how those conversations are going to play out, and they’re certainly not about pitting one group against the other. That’s the absolute death wish, it seems to me, of a pernicious dictatorship. That’s not what’s going to happen. I don’t see how that could serve anybody.”

After the provincial budget was announced Kachanoski came under fire from student unions for appearing to side with the government on its cuts to the university.

At the student-organized town hall May 14 Lennox said the student unions met with Kachanoski a few days after the budget, at which time the president informed them of the possible tuition and residence fee hikes.

“It was a total shock,” she said. “We asked him to join us in lobbying government to try and get that funding back and he flatly refused. He said he was not interested in going back to ask government for more money since the university and government have already decided they could raise extra revenue from students just like yourselves,” Lennox told the crowd.

While she stopped short of advocating for protest or lobbying efforts, Golfman was more forthright in assigning blame to government for the situation.

“I think it’s a so-called election year budget and I think the people will speak, and we’ll see what happens,” she said. “But at this moment in time you have to appreciate that it’s our responsibility to propose to the Board of Regents how we’re going to deal with the reality right now.

“Right now we have to think, we have been handed a set of cards and we did not propose 30 per cent, we did not say hit international and grad students — this was delivered to us,” she continued. “So now we’re here, we’re living in a democracy, the public is having its say, students are having their say, and our job here as the university’s administrators is to try and manage an open conversation on the one hand and respond to this set of cards that has been delivered to us in the most responsible way.

“We can take a lot of time marching up [to Confederation] Hill, but is that going to change the situation? I believe that [the PCs] have done what they are doing and have considered it in view of an election and are going to let the chips fall where they may for them. I think there’s some comfort in knowing it’s an election year, frankly, because we’ll have…an extended debate on all kinds of things related to the social and economic well-being of this province. And hopefully it will generate a much wider conversation about where government should be investing.”

Opposition parties renew commitment to tuition freeze

Just over three years ago at Memorial University then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale announced the continuation of the post-secondary tuition freeze.

“I couldn’t agree…more that education is a right, not a privilege. And I hope that I’m around here long enough when we’ll be able to see the day that everybody gets not only to have their full primary, elementary and high school fully paid for by the state, but that they get at least, in my lifetime, their first degree paid for by the state,” she said.

“[It] is an investment in Newfoundland and Labrador when we invest in you, when we invest in these learning institutions, and we’re going to continue to do that because it’s a priority for all of us — it’s an investment in Newfoundland and Labrador, an investment in our province.”

Last week, responding to questions from The Independent, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Clyde Jackman said he believes education “definitely is a right” and emphasized the government’s commitment to maintain the tuition freeze for Canadian undergraduate students.

“Secondly,” he said, “with the increase with tuition, we still remain the lowest across Canada to provide to international students and graduate students.”

Hassan Nejad said, however, that a 30 per cent increase to MUN’s international tuition fees could make the university less competitive in attracting international students.

“International students choose St. John’s primarily because of this low tuition freeze,” he said. “If the tuition fees are going to be closer to other universities, international students may go to other cities. The reason for that is Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto have more diverse environments for international students — they consider the restaurants, the supermarkets, the communities of their countries. So although Memorial has attracted more international students and St. John’s has become more diverse than ever, right now in other cities people [still] might find more diverse environments.”

Jackman also emphasized the government’s loans-to-grants initiative, which will help Newfoundland and Labrador students with their education costs but not the international students and graduate students from outside the province who are facing the 30 per cent increases.

Provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy tells students gathered at the May 14 town hall on proposed tuition fee increases that he doesn't see how raising tuition is compatible with youth retention in the province. Photo by Justin Brake.

Provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy tells students gathered at the May 14 town hall on proposed tuition fee increases that he doesn’t see how raising tuition is compatible with youth retention in the province. Photo by Justin Brake.

Responding to a student at the May 14 town hall event who asked if the NDP would maintain the tuition freeze if elected government, party leader Earle McCurdy said raising tuition fees for students isn’t compatible with the province’s need to retain youth and increase the population.

In a follow-up email a party spokesperson Jean Graham confirmed that the tuition freeze has been part of the NDP’s policy since 1999 and that the party’s position on the matter is “pretty firm”.

Official opposition critic for Advanced Education and Skills Scott Reid told The Independent a Liberal government would also maintain the freeze.

“The Liberal Party has a long-term commitment to tuition freezes. We are the party that instituted this back in 1999, and that was at a time before we had the windfall oil revenue that we had,” he said.

“So it’s a serious commitment and it’s part of the whole liberal philosophy of providing a quality of opportunity; that’s a very important concept to Liberals and to our caucus — the idea that if people work hard you have an opportunity to get ahead. And affordable and accessible education is a very important principle to us as Liberals.”

“A question of values”

Regardless of which party forms the next government in the Nov. 30 provincial election, the student unions are standing firm in their demand for maintaining the tuition freeze for all students.

“We’re definitely going to continue to lobby and put pressure on the provincial government, on the administration, on the Board of Regents — have them realize the folly of the decision to increase tuition fees,” said Canadian Federation of Students Chairperson for NL Travis Perry.

“Right now our main tactic is a petition we’re circulating amongst the students’ unions, community groups and coalition partners, and that petition is calling on the provincial government to restore funding to Memorial and reinstate the tuition fee freeze for all students.”

Meanwhile, Jenner said MUNFA is committed to continue standing with the students and is calling, above all else, for unity within the university community, though he is skeptical faculty and students will have an adequate voice in any decisions, he said, given the lack of transparency and effective communication from the administration to the faculty union so far.

“I don’t want to be cynical, but I don’t think that you’ll find there are many faculty members at the university who think that the university is anything other than a top-down driven administrative style. They keep things very close to their chest. Should they want to open up, that would be great.”

Farquharson said the public and the entire university community need to engage in a healthy discussion and begin exploring bigger questions about the role and function of the university in Newfoundland and Labrador society if meaningful decisions are to be made.

“At the heart of it, it’s a question of values,” she said.

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