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MUN community must unite against provincial government’s austerity

By: | May 4, 2017

Questionable strategy, fractured university community means everyone loses.

Jon Parsons
Power and Dissent offers a critical take on culture, society and politics in Newfoundland and Labrador

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Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Gerry Byrne is augmenting divisions within the Memorial University community, says Jon Parsons. Facebook photo.

Whoever is behind the recent political strategy in the premier’s office and in cabinet deserves a raise.

Compared with the beach balls lobbed at their political opponents in 2016, this year government did a wonderful job of mitigating unrest. The 2017 budget rolled out with little fanfare, and the way it was presented seems specifically designed to avoid sparking protests. In the ongoing spat with MUN over funding cuts, even Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Gerry Byrne managed a couple slam dunks.

The government’s strategy with MUN is to offload on university administration any responsibility for tuition and fee increases, a move that is designed to avoid the wrath and protests of the students. This year government made another cut to MUN’s funding, but said it was up to the university administration to decide whether to raise tuition to cover the loss.

This is the third year in a row the provincial government (under the former PC government, too) made cuts to MUN’s budget. Tuition and fees were previously raised on graduate and international students, and it was obvious that a raise in undergraduate tuition was in the cards.

Byrne’s strategy to divide and conquer the university community is to go after the low-hanging fruit, pointing to the university’s salaries and expenses. He also made dubious statements about the university’s financial accountability and suggested its books were not in order (which was swiftly debunked by the university’s Board of Regents). This paints a picture of the university as out of touch and living high on the hog while austerity sweeps through the province.

Even as the university administration has recently pushed back in some ways, it is obvious that Byrne and the provincial government have the initiative. Byrne is even so bold to say that he and the provincial government are on the side of the students, absurdly demanding that MUN maintain the tuition freeze while it is the provincial government that put raising tuition on the table by continuing to cut funding from MUN.

Unfortunately, the various factions in the university community – upper administration, students, faculty, and staff – have been making it relatively easy for Byrne and for the provincial government by playing into their strategy.

A  better strategy for the students is to go after the source of the problem: the provincial government.

For example, the student unions and student representatives have largely focused on the salaries of the university president and senior administrators. It does seem, at first glance, that senior administration makes exorbitant salaries, and there are indeed a significant number of faculty on the sunshine list.

However, what is rarely mentioned is that many of these upper administration and faculty members are worth every penny. University presidents, for example, are usually hired and compensated relative to their Rolodex – i.e. their ability to rub elbows, fundraise, and grow the university’s endowment fund. Senior administrators and faculty are likewise evaluated not only on their academic research but also on the funding and grants they bring in.

The student unions and union representatives might also consider re-evaluating their arguments about the economic impact students have on the province, with respect to consumer spending, taxes, and the ways they will contribute to the economy in the long term. It seems disingenuous to critique the corporatization of the university and the way broader neoliberal practices have crept in, and then to turn around and discuss students as financial units using that same neoliberal logic.

A better strategy for the students is to go after the source of the problem: the provincial government.

It is the provincial government that continues to cut funding to the university, and the university administration is being put in an impossible position, especially given the mounting deferred maintenance and crumbling infrastructure on campus.

I also wonder what can possibly be gained with the current strategy of going after upper administration. In the short term, sure, they may be badgered into maintaining a tuition freeze for another year, but the cuts will keep coming from the provincial government year after year and the root of the problem will not have been addressed.

The university administration made a mistake by doing government’s dirty work and by allowing themselves to be pitted against the students. A better strategy may be to put up staunch resistance, and to come to some agreements with the students, faculty, and staff about how to move forward against their common foe, the provincial government.

Organized resistance and solidarity in the university community would pose a significant threat, and this government and premier likely won’t be able to withstand another round of unrest and disruption.

One way to do this would have been to reframe the discussion around the enormous value the university brings, not just with respect to jobs and direct economic activity, but with respect to the knowledge that is being produced. This knowledge functions to the benefit of our whole society, but also significantly to the private sector – to the extractive industries, to the financial industries, and to a variety of other industries. This is essentially a subsidy whereby public funds pay for research that is then monetized in the private sector.

Aside from this angle, one might also make the case that the provincial government’s priorities are out of order to be throwing good money after bad in that huge money pit in Labrador called Muskrat Falls; this year Nalcor got around $700 million from the public purse.

It seems to me the university administration should also do everything possible to stand in solidarity with the students. Even if upper administration is in an untenable position, it costs nothing to preface every statement by saying that the students are the top priority.

And even if tuition increases are on the table, the university can still hold the moral high ground by maintaining that ideally there should be no tuition. Arguments can be made that tuition is not ethically justifiable and that students should be paid for their part in the production of knowledge. The Faculty of Education can help with arguments in this regard, given that constructivism and critical pedagogy (such as from Paulo Freire) are standard fare.

Overall, the students, upper administration, faculty, and staff need to get together, find some common ground, and direct their combined forces at the provincial government. The government did a good job this year of mitigating unrest, and they obviously learned some lessons from last year’s budget revolt and the uprising at Muskrat Falls.

But the provincial government is still vulnerable and still in many respects weak. Organized resistance and solidarity in the university community would pose a significant threat, and this government and premier likely won’t be able to withstand another round of unrest and disruption.

Continuing to allow the various factions in the university to be pitted against each other means that everyone in the university community will surely lose. Building solidarity and a culture of resistance gives us a fighting chance of reversing the cuts to the university, averting more in the future, maintaining the tuition freeze, and hopefully getting back on track of the values and principles the university is founded on.

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. He recently published his book, Everyday Dissent: Politics and Resistance in Newfoundland and LabradorCatch up with Jon on Twitter @jwpnfld

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