Why is Tuition Thawing Now? Following the Money at MUNL

Memorial says government forced their hand on tuition. Government says the university asked for it. What’s going on at MUNL, and why? Part Two of a three-part series.

For twenty-two years, Memorial University students enjoyed some of the most affordable degrees in Canada—which is especially noteworthy considering it came during a time when other institutions across the country were raising their fees. So it raises the question: why is the tuition freeze ending in a few months?

In this three-part series, The Independent is taking a closer look at the end of the MUNL tuition freeze. Part One explored how those increased tuition costs will hit new (and returning) students—as well as how non-tuition costs to live and study at Memorial have been steadily rising for years, in some cases far beyond the rate of inflation. Part Three will look at the history of the tuition freeze, what it meant for students (and the province) over the last 22 years, and what it will mean to see it eliminated. 

Here in Part Two, The Independent looks at the relationship between Memorial University and the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador to get a sense of the reasons why the tuition freeze is ending now. While university administrators and provincial politicians sometimes seem to be working at odds, their goals converge around creating a new MUNL that will no longer serve as what Premier Andrew Furey called “a university for everyone.”

The Government and Greene

The Liberal government has been sounding an alarm over the fiscal state of the province for some time. To create some sort of map out of our financial woes, in 2020 Premier Furey convened a team—that mostly consisted of business leaders—to come up with some ideas to mitigate it.

The Big Reset—the report that came out in May 2021 from Premier’s Economic Recovery Team helmed by Moya Greene—insisted that the provincial government needed to cut its financial support to the university. Moreover, it argued that when compared to other provinces, NL spent more on post-secondary education. In fact, it stated the province invested 1.4 percent of its GDP, which is 0.4 per cent more than the national average.

“While no one can argue the value of [post-secondary education] as an economic driver and a determinant of health, Newfoundland and Labrador’s current level of investment in [post-secondary education] institutions is not sustainable. The province can deliver the same or better outcomes if funding came from other sources,” reads the report.

It also advised, “Newfoundland and Labrador should reduce its grants to Memorial and [College of the North Atlantic] and allow them to increase tuition and operate more autonomously.”

Source: Greene Report.

A week after the Greene report was released, Premier Furey declared to reporters—a few months after securing his rule in a recent and controversial provincial election—that in order to fix NL’s fiscal problems he was prepared to lose the next one.

At the time, it had just been announced in the Greene report that the province was staring down a total debt of $47 billion. (The provincial government estimates a net debt of $17.1 billion in Budget 2022.)

In the May 2021 budget, Furey’s government explained this new fiscal reality by stating that provincial “investments in postsecondary institutions equate to more than $21,000 per full-time equivalent student.” By comparison, the Canadian average is about $10,000. On top of that, the provincial government’s operating grant to MUNL is 30 percent higher than the national average.

One of the measures introduced was a base operating budget cut of $2.6 million to the university.

Supposedly, from Memorial University’s perspective, it was the end of the government’s support for the tuition freeze.

Pointing Fingers

However, Education Minister Tom Osborne laid out a different timeline for the series of events that led to Memorial announcing tuition rates were being hiked.

On April 4, 2022, there was a media availability at the House of Assembly, where Education Minister Tom Osborne and Finance Minister Siobhan Coady announced the Auditor General would be launching an investigation into Memorial’s books.

Minister Coady said MUNL received about 76 percent of its operating revenue from the provincial government, which is far greater than the national average (which is about 45 percent). She said it was important to ask the Auditor General to review the university’s finances, expenses, and operations. It’s especially important as they move forward with other changes in MUNL’s quest for more autonomy, stressing it was the responsible thing to do.

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady and Education Minister Tom Osborne at the House of Assembly, 4 April 2022. Photo: Rhea Rollmann.

When asked by The Independent why that support was framed as a negative, even if larger than other provinces, Minister Osborne responded: “Memorial University is very important and we recognize that to the culture of the province, the economy of the province and to the education of students in this province, and from abroad as well. So nobody is disputing that.” 

“[But] the reality is that 76 percent of the operating budget of MUNL [is] coming from Newfoundland and Labrador, [and] we feel that before changes are made to the Memorial University Act—talking about more autonomy—that we need to protect the investment of tax payers in this province,” he continued. “Because it is a significant investment when you look at other provinces.”

Minister Osborne also pointed out Memorial had the autonomy to raise tuition, “and informed government months before last year’s budget they were doing so. So that direction came from the university, not from government. I want to be abundantly clear on that.”

In response, the government funds previously used to support the tuition freeze went towards student grants instead, he explained.

“Why would we keep tuition freeze funding there, if tuition were going to increase? Instead we took the tuition freeze funding and redirected that funding to student grants and loan programs. Which we would not have had the money to do if we didn’t take the tuition freeze funding back—keeping in mind that tuitions were not going to be frozen.”

This contradicts what Memorial had been claiming since late May 2021: that the government put it in the position where it had to axe the tuition freeze and boost the price.

“With the announcement that the $68.4-million tuition fee revenue offset will be phased out over the next five years and the end of government support for the tuition freeze, the provincial government has signaled that Memorial should look at all sources of revenue and develop a tuition framework that reflects the cost of providing education,” Timmons said in a statement at the time.

Memorial University president Dr. Vianne Timmons. (2020 File Photo.)

On April 7 when the Furey government tabled the 2022 budget, The Independent was able to speak with the president of Memorial about the end of the tuition freeze and untangle exactly who prompted the tuition hike: the university or the provincial government?

Timmons said when you look at the history of the tuition freeze, she said they got the post-secondary review that said that the tuition freeze should be lifted. 

“We knew the Moya Greene [report] was going to recommend the tuition to be lifted. When we spoke to government, in all of our meetings, they talked about the lifting of the tuition freeze,” Timmons explained. “So we had lots of advance notice and discussions around that. As a university we attempted to be proactive to look at different models and did present that to the province—which they did not follow through on.”

She said there’s a nuance to what Memorial is saying and what the government is saying.

“We were trying to be proactive based on all the information we had and the results of those two government-sanctioned reports,” Timmons explained. “All indications were that these recommendations will be taken by government, so we did go to government and present a strategy to be proactive.”

However, Memorial still waited to make that announcement—via a press release —until after Furey’s government announced a massive cut in its support, which made it sound like the freeze was ending because the government was cutting the funding allocated to freeze.

Timmons explained the timing, saying the government removed the policy and then they announced the tuition increase. Once the government lifted the freeze, Memorial did increase the fees, said Timmons.

“As they lifted the freeze, they also announced a 24 percent cut. We didn’t have any options.”

Students Fret Over Future

During a media availability on May 15, 2021, Premier Furey told reporters that “Memorial University has to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.”

“It has amazing potential, and it too is at a crossroads, of whether it wants to be a university for everybody every day or if it wants … to take a different route,” he said.

But his comments also raise the question: how can MUNL be a university for everybody if tuition isn’t affordable? It’s also contrary to the founding principle of the institution—but more on that in Part Three.

Long before Furey entered political life or embarked on his career as an orthopedic surgeon, he started his post-secondary education at MUNL in 1993, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1997—when he would have paid $105 per credit hour. Calculated for inflation, that would now be $174.38.

According to an ATIPP document in the mid-2000s, 70 percent of the university’s revenue was from the provincial operating grant, whereas 22 percent was from tuition. Even then, the university was concerned about “struggling to find sufficient revenues to cover increasing costs,” related to salary step increases in its faculty, as well as inflation for energy, insurance and library acquisitions, plus equipment maintenance (described on page 5).

In July 2021 Memorial announced the freeze was definitely coming to an end and there would be no gentle thaw. Instead, the cost per course would be doubling in the fall semester of 2022, going from $255 to $600 for incoming N.L. students. It caused an outpouring of anger and not a small amount of bad press for the university and its new president, Dr. Vianne Timmons.

Gaayathri Sukantha Murugan. Photo: Robyn Love.

Gaayathri Sukantha Murugan was an international student from India who recently graduated from Grenfell Campus. When The Independent spoke with her, she was the Grenfell Campus Student Union’ councillor at large and represented the union provincially at Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador, a non-profit that organizes across the country in the interests of students.

She recently told The Independent she’s fortunate she was graduating this past semester, “However when I heard about that I was absolutely floored about how much tuition was going to be increased to.”

Murugan added that in 2018 the tuition from international and graduate students went up, so this upcoming increase is on top of that recent hike.

Grenfell Campus Student Union president and former Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador campaign coordinator Mary Feltham said MUNL has acknowledged that tuition increases will decrease enrollment and that it isn’t going to change the fact the university’s not making enough money. She explained that MUNL has said its increasing costs to compensate for the lack of funding, but they’re still going to be making approximately the same or a little less.

“So they’re essentially saying they only want the wealthy and the elite to get the education that they offer. Which puts a lot of marginalized groups at a disadvantage as they’re the ones often in the lower economic classes and whatnot,” said Feltham.

Moreover, the way in which the university is implementing the hike is telling to her. Rather than all the students paying a new fee, it’s the new cohort who will be feeling that sharp increase—whereas already enrolled students will see a slow increase in the next five years. 

“So current students feel less of a need to advocate because they might think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t impact us.’ But it does,” Feltham continued. “There are certain fees being impacted now and a lot of folks have family members coming in. So they see the two different fees there.”

Enrollment Rolls Along

While it’s been bandied about that the tuition hike will deter students from enrolling, so far Memorial hasn’t seen much of an impact. Spokesperson David Sorensen said in an email to The Independent that as of June 2, first-year undergraduate enrollment for the fall semester is 6,015, down 16.3 percent percent from last year’s total undergraduate enrollment, but up 1.7 percent from 2020.

As well, people can still send their applications into August, so that enrollment for the fall could change, Sorensen observed.

From available numbers, it seems like the only year enrollment took a hit was in 2021, when the pandemic would have made an impact.

In July 2021, it was widely reported that Memorial enrollment was expected to drop by 20 percent due to the tuition hike. But Sorensen offered the following clarification over email:

“The 20 percent drop in first-year admissions was a model used for evaluating potential impacts on budget. It was a worst-case scenario for planning. We had 3,488 first year students enrolled last fall so 20 percent fewer would be about 700 students which is about a three-and-a-half percent decline in overall enrollment, in the modeling. Again, application numbers are similar to the last five years (with the exception of last year) so we expect first-year enrolment to remain stable going forward.”

The Science Building at the Memorial University St. John’s campus. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten.

Still, it’s not known what factors are driving this dip and if it’s related to the tuition hike. It’s possible more people decided to delay starting a degree due to the pandemic, or wanting to raise additional funds to cover the costs. Some people might have decided to leave the province for school.

But there’s also looking at enrollment by location to consider. Of the 6015 people currently intending to begin undergraduate studies at Memorial in fall 2022, 2967 are from this province, 935 come from other Canadian provinces, and the remaining 2113 are international.

But compared to 2021, there were 3170 people from this province enrolled, with 1036 from the rest of Canada. 2985 were international.

That means between last year and this year, there was a 6.4 percent drop from local students planning to attend Memorial’s undergraduate programs. The number of Canadian students from outside NL declined by 9.7 percent, whereas international students plummeted by 29 percent.

When compared to 2020, of the undergraduate students 3078 were from Newfoundland and Labrador, 1009 were Canadians from out of province, and 1830 were international.

So it appears that for the last two years, the number of NL and out of province Canadian first-year students have remained relatively stable with little fluctuation—whereas the number of international students has varied a great deal. Between 2020 and 2022, the numbers rose by 16 percent.

Is the Tuition Hike Even Necessary?

There has been some contention that the government cutting its support to MUNL is unnecessary as the province’s fiscal fortunes are set to improve.

Passing the Buck—a report that was publicly released January 18 and written by Senior Economist with the national office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, David Macdonald—agrees that enrollment will likely drop as a result of the surge in cost. The report notes it will make MUNL go from the most affordable university in Atlantic Canada for international students to the most expensive, and similar to universities in Ontario and British Columbia.

The raised tuition will also make MUNL a less attractive option to students coming from provinces like Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, Macdonald observed. Afterall, why would these students be lured to Newfoundland and Labrador when they can pay a similar tuition cost and live at home?

Moreover, MacDonald argued that “with the distinct possibility that the province’s manageable deficit will have turned into a surplus by 2025, Memorial University undergraduate students will be paying more in tuition fees so that the province can make a fiscal surplus even more likely.” 

“In a province consisting of 522,000 people, Memorial University undergraduate students—who represent merely 2.2% of the province’s population—could end up paying a third (29%) of the province’s entire deficit by 2025–26,” he wrote. “Instead of looking to university students as its future, the province is looking to them as a debt transfer mechanism to whom the buck can be passed.”

Source: Passing The Buck report.

Low-income Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be able to tap into the Tuition Relief Grant, which will provide up to $3,450 a year. This is”the exact amount of the tuition increase for in-province students in the first year,” MacDonald observes. “It doesn’t appear at this point that the $3,450 grant will increase in line with the 4% growth in tuition after the big hike in 2022.”

In his view, the government is basically offloading the supplement it used to give to MUNL, which will now be carried by its students. “The significantly higher tuition fees that students will be paying will not add to Memorial University’s coffers—they will be compensating for provincial government funding cuts.”

MacDonald observed that by 2025-2026—the time the cutbacks to MUNL will be in full-swing—the provincial deficit is projected to be $88 million.

“Long story short: by the time the tuition hikes are in full effect, the province may well be recording a surplus, not a deficit,” he argued.

It is however worth noting that this number-crunching is dependent on a number of factors, including the price of oil.

When tuition prices go up, they don’t tend to go back down. Assuming the provincial government gets its fiscal situation under wraps in a few years, don’t expect the subsidy to MUNL to kick in again and tuition costs to come back down.

Another report titled All Hands on Deck—which came from an independent committee appointed by the provincial government in 2019—also recommended doing away with the tuition freeze and instead bring in a tuition model that “reflects and respects the priorities of the university and the province; takes into consideration the impacts on student access to university education; and explicitly considers the true costs of supporting students being accepted into programs within the university.”

According to the National Graduates Survey, of the Canadian students who graduated in 2015, half of them finished school with a median of $17,500 in loans.

Administrative Bloat Amid Academic Precarity

All across Canada, provincial governments are scaling back and slashing support to their universities since the 1990s due to embracing cost-cutting practices. Support for public services were cut, including to universities, and one of the results was tuition increased. It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that Newfoundland and Labrador bucked that trend in regards to government support of post-secondary education for as long as it did.

One of the reasons often cited for tuition increases are administrative bloat: that the university bureaucracy is enlarging itself by hiring too many on the administrative side, and that cost is then passed onto students. It can include staff members, as well as managerial, executive, and administrative positions.

The Arts and Administration Building at Memorial University’s St. John’s campus. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten.

Tied in with this is the precarity of cheap and flexible academic labour. When many tenured professors finally retire and their spots need to be filled, a tenure-track professor isn’t always hired to replace them. Now, they’re more likely to be filled with sessionals, and academics with the right credentials on their CV are relegated to functionally working part-time.

This has been frequently hailed as a cost-saving measure by universities. But it’s hard on professors, who have to cobble together work hours, have no idea if they’ll be rehired for their one-semester or one-year contract, and feel more consistently burned out. On top of having to teach and grade, they aren’t able to do research that is paramount in their fields and career advancement. They are stuck working the gig economy—even though they were promised that a PhD was the ultimate job security.

Memorial isn’t immune to this trend. In late 2018 the Lecturers’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland—the union that represents sessional instructors—very nearly went on strike over poor pay and the absence of a health plan. At the time, MUNL sessionals were the lowest paid in the country and made between $30,000 and $32,000 when teaching a full courseload of six courses a year.

As neolioberal ideology gained a greater hold in Canada in the 1980s and into the 1990s, the perception of universities began to shift. It was getting further away from the idea of a public good and was embracing its place as a corporate organization that was more privatized and placed greater importance on entrepreneurship. This coincided with austerity measures and government’s pulling financial support for universities. There has also been a pivot towards producing more technical workers, while backing away from the arts and humanities courses.

As The Breach and The Independent’s Justin Brake recently reported, there has been a recent battle in post-secondary institutions as they are being encroached by for-profit corporations. 

Emails released through an access to information request showed to The Breach that early on in the pandemic, multinational for-profit education provider Navitas had been making contact with senior provincial administrators in St. John’s.

Navitas, which is owned by a private equity firm, recruits international students to the country, charging the students high fees with the hope of getting these students to enter a Canadian university. These students often aren’t eligible to enter the partnering university but Navitas promises a pathway through pricy language programs and introductory classes on campus.

At Memorial there was pushback regarding a partnership with Navitas from the faculty association and the lecturer’s union, and Memorial broke off talks with Navitas last November.

Memorial University in a Harsh Spotlight

Against this backdrop, MUNL administration has also been embroiled in a number of controversies.

First, there is the conflict between senior administrators and fourth-year political science and sociology student Matthew Barter. On December 2 he held a one-person silent protest during a press conference, holding sign near President Timmons that read “Stop Vianne” and “No to tuition hikes and out of control spending.” Almost a week later Barter was banned from setting foot on campus except to attend classes. And as reported by The Independent, Barter is now taking the university to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador to quash its decision to place him on non-academic probation for one year and require him to attend a seminar on bullying and harassment.

Student protester Matt Barter holding a sign that reads 'Stop Vianne! No to tuition hikes and out of control spending!' as MUNL President Vianne Timmons speaks in the background.
Photo via Matt Barter.

Not long after starting the job, Provost, Vice-President (Academic) and Pro-Vice- Chancellor Dr. Florentine Strzelczyk will be wrapping up her very short tenure at MUNL on April 30 to start a similar job at Western University. She hadn’t reached six months into the post and has cited personal reasons behind the move. In a statement, released on February 11, the Memorial University Faculty Association called on Strzelczyk to pay back the hefty moving expenses she had received to relocate her to the province.

There has also been a notable degree of recent turnover in senior leadership positions at MUNL. According to this MUNL website, 12 of the 18 deans are either “acting,” “interim” or “pro tempore.” That’s more than half, though this situation isn’t necessarily unique to MUNL. People have to leave positions for a variety of reasons—say someone becomes ill, a family member needs additional care, or people retire.

Filing these positions can be costly. Often, MUNL hires expensive headhunting firms to fill senior leadership positions, and the process can be shrouded in secrecy. Odgers Berndston was contracted to find Strzelczyk and retained a consulting fee for it. While not clear how much the company was paid, the cost to hire Strzelczyk totalled $60,990.89.

MUNFA has also called on the university to stop outsourcing searches for firms like Odgers Berndston.

Then there’s the kerfuffle going on in the political science department.

Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman came to NL in 2015 from Turkey and he has been there ever since. On February 4 he announced over Twitter his term contract, which expired April 2022, would not be renewed. Since going public with this news there has seen a surge of support from colleagues and students, including a petition asking the university to reverse its decision.

Caman ultimately secured a new 8-month position in Law and Society in the Department of Political Science.

Back in November, 2020 in a video posted to Twitter, Caman joined Timmons for an informal interview where he explained how he ended up staying at MUNL because of the deteriorating political situation in Turkey. He was one of several thousands of academics who were being persecuted, including having his passport canceled.

“You said you’re lucky to be here in Newfoundland, well I say Newfoundland is lucky to have you,” she said, pointing at him. “At Memorial we’re also lucky to have you.”

A History of Raising Tuition at the University of Regina

For some insight into the prevailing mindset of MUNL’s top administrators, it’s worth taking a look back into Timmon’s tenure as University of Regina’s president—a position she held from 2008 until taking up her post at Memorial in 2020.

In 2013 there were efforts to oust Timmons from her role after a petition was circulated among the University of Regina Council to have a special meeting to debate the motion that “the University of Regina Council has lost confidence in the President and Vice-President (Academic).”

The issue was over a loss of confidence in both Timmons and Vice-President (Academic) Tom Chase. The petition alleged “they have harmed the university’s academic mission” while also “refusing to produce a complete budget,” as well as the “mismanagement” of donors’ funds, which has done “grave harm to the University’s reputation.”

She survived the non-confidence vote by a slim margin, thereby dodging a vote on her leadership.

Dr. Vianne Timmons speaks to reporters at Confederation Building on Budget Day 2022. Photo: Brian Carey.

In 2017 she also oversaw a 2.5 percent increase in tuition, budget cuts, and unfilled staff vacancies, at a time that saw the provincial government cut its support for U of R. Tuition had already been raised year over year since 2008. It was supposedly done to reflect $7 million in government cuts since November 2016.

In 2019, U of R tuition was raised again—for the 11th year in a row. At the time Timmons said, “the more students you have, you have to get more faculty, you have to hire more people. We have a lot of pressures in terms of regulatory requirements like health and safety. We have to get more staff in that area.”

At the same time, executive salaries at the University of Regina were on the rise. While students were paying more for their courses, in 2019 Timmons received an increase of $22,027 in salary. That year she earned $388,025, which also included free housing at 1001 McNiven Avenue, a home owned by the university—now on the market.

According to her agreement with Memorial, as President and Vice-Chancellor Timmons’ annual salary for 2020 was supposed to be $450,000—with a note it would be reviewed. She also gets a $25,000 research grant. In addition, MUNL paid “all moving, real estate commission and legal fees and disbursements associated with the acquisition of a family home in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.” Moreover, she gets a $1,000 month car allowance, which is tax deductible, as well as a housing assistance allowance of $1,500 per month (also considered a taxable benefit) and a $4,000 annual flexible spending benefit.

Follow the Money

Over a year ago, the PCs were rallying for Furey’s government to do something about what it called “administrative bloat” as opposed to rising tuition. According to the press release, the 2020 Sunshine List showed 314 Memorial employees were taking home more than $150,000 a year, with 85 of those employees in administrative positions.

“There are serious, legitimate questions to ask about the expenditures of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. The administrative bloat at the university continues to go up – and now students are being asked to take those expenses on the chin. It’s not right,” said PC Opposition Shadow Minister of Education Barry Petten in the release.

Of course, there are those who would argue that the so-called administrative bloat is a result of universities getting larger and being called on to do more work, as this letter to the editor in The Telegram argued. I mean, look at how many facilities Memorial now operates, spread out over a large geographical distance. The research being done at these labs has helped advance knowledge and put Memorial on the lab as a leader in ocean science studies.

While the details of Auditor General Denise Hanrahan’s investigation are being kept under wraps for the moment, the scope is said to be broad. The Auditor General’s office got a major influx of cash in the 2022 provincial budget, going from $3.9 million last year to $7.6 million.

It’s also not known when the audit will begin, or how long it will take—and to what extent the findings will be made public.

In a recent interview with CBC, Hanrahan said her investigation could tackle operations of the office of university president Vianne Timmons as well as infrastructure.

The last time Memorial’s books were scrutinized like this was in 2014.

In an interview with The Independent, Petten said he’d been calling for the Auditor General to come in to look at Memorial’s books at least a year before the Liberal government made the announcement it was doing just that.

Petten repeatedly stressed that nothing should have been done at Memorial with regards to tuition until the Auditor General has done a proper review of the books, which could take a year.

When the review is done he explained they will have a better picture of what’s happening financially at the university, “then you can discuss if you want to keep the tuition freeze… does MUNL need more autonomy or do they need less autonomy? What about the infrastructure needs? Do we need a law school, maybe we don’t need a law school.”

“I think the whole picture needs to be looked at. Maybe if you left tuition alone, you can put them at a cap, even… It shouldn’t price people out of getting an education,” Petten said. “That was the reason why it was originally brought in 20 odd years back… and to attract international students as well but to also make it more affordable for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”

These are familiar claims about the purpose behind bringing in the tuition freeze at Memorial more than twenty years ago. How and why that actually happened—and whether or not it accomplished its intended goals, as well as what it means to see it eliminated—is the subject of Part Three of our investigation.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

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UPDATE, 18 June 2022: A previous version of this article stated that the Lecturer’s Union of Memorial University (LUMUN) went on strike in late 2018 over pay and benefits. In fact, although LUMUN came very close to a strike vote in their last round of bargaining, the union has never actually gone on strike. The Independent regrets this error.

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