Zerbe’s folly

New MUN dean’s proposed tuition fee increases are out of step with university, province, and students

It can quite accurately be said that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – moreso than other Canadians, perhaps – understand the value of an education.

The fact rings through our history with the resounding clarity of a foghorn off Cape Spear. At the end of the First World War, while other nations were erecting statues and pillars to honour the memory of those lost, Newfoundland’s memorial was the creation of its first post-secondary institution – Memorial College – to advance the skills and learning of future generations. In the 1960s, as universities throughout Canada dithered and argued with different levels of government over funding schemes, Newfoundland and Labrador abolished tuition fees and – in addition – awarded living grants to students to come to St. John’s and study.

If there is a success story in Newfoundland and Labrador that puts the rest of Canada to shame, it is the province’s post-secondary education system.

In the 1990s – after a brief and spectacularly disastrous attempt to follow mainland Canadian trends of increasing tuition fees – government came around to its senses, reduced fees dramatically and then froze them, while also converting the provincial loan system into a non-repayable grant (with conditions). In the 2000s, they abolished interest on all remaining provincial student loans, and froze fees for international students as well. And today, opinion polls show that over 80 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want tuition to be free. If there is a success story in Newfoundland and Labrador that puts the rest of Canada to shame, it is the province’s post-secondary education system.

And, while conditions at post-secondary institutes in many other Canadian provinces continue to deteriorate – higher tuition fees, higher debt, larger class sizes, crumbling infrastructure – Newfoundland and Labrador’s institutions are an achievement this province can be truly proud of. At the same time as the pool of locally born high school graduates has been shrinking, Memorial’s achievements in recruiting students from across Canada and the world with the lure of low fees, stable government funding and the higher quality of education this ensures, have been nothing short of remarkable.

Success breeds new challenges

But of course, success often brings unwanted attention, and throughout Newfoundland’s history there have always been occasions where a fresh-faced mainlander will arrive, full of fresh-faced mainland attitudes that really do not work here, and decide he knows better than everybody else. And then he’ll start saying silly things.

Enter Dr. Zerbe.

No, Dr. Zerbe is not a nefarious scientist out of some B-grade sci-fi movie, intent on selling humanity out to the Cylons or somesuch. On the contrary, he’s the new Dean of MUN’s School of Business. But, like a latter-day Gaius Baltar, he decided he needed to put himself in the spotlight and went on an impromptu speaking tour last week effectively denouncing university and government policy alike, and demanding students in his faculty be forced to pay higher fees.

“How much higher?” asked a CBC reporter gleefully, with the barely contained delight of a journalist watching a poor mainland n00b digging himself into a disastrous hole with enthusiastic abandon.

$10,000 high, was the reply. At least, that would be a good place to start.

What Dr. Zerbe apparently didn’t take the time to research is …

Now it’s worthwhile considering Dr. Zerbe’s arguments, since they’re arguments that haven’t really been discussed lately (at least, not since they were debunked and packed away the last time a poor come-from-away administrator proposed them five or six years ago).

First, argues Dr. Zerbe, business students need a career centre to help them find employment, and international students need extra support services, and doubling or tripling their tuition fees would provide the money to do such things.

What Dr. Zerbe apparently didn’t take the time to research is that Memorial already has one of the highest ranked, award-winning career centres in the entire country. Furthermore, it’s one of the few universities with a dedicated, transparent accounting system that assigns specific portions of international student fees to fund support services (ESL training, tutoring, etc) for those students. In other words, MUN already has all these things he is proposing to create. Why he proposes to build new things from scratch, at great cost, to duplicate services that are already offered and considered the best in the country, remains one of the great unexplained mysteries of his universe.

Zerbe wants rich students, not real students

Secondly, he argues, MBA students – the ones he proposes should pay $10,000 – earn more money so they can afford it (despite the fact he also thinks they need a career centre). And because they can afford it, they should pay it. Well that’s a lovely argument. Taking a look at my bank account, it occurs to me that, if I decided it was absolutely imperative, I COULD afford to buy a $200 custom-made chocolate macaroon from Pierre Herme. That doesn’t mean it would make any sense for me to do so, nor that it would be remotely fair to expect me to. I shouldn’t be expected to pay more than $10 for macaroons at the dessert shop, and MBA students shouldn’t have to pay more than the $4400 they currently do.

Raising fees even a fraction of what Dr. Zerbe proposes will result in one thing: an exodus.

Moreover, Water Street is not Bay Street (thank goodness) and the average MBA grad is not going to be able to survive in this province on $10,000 fees. As recently reported in the Globe and Mail, despite Newfoundland and Labrador’s economic growth, hourly wages are still below the national average, personal incomes are the second lowest in the country, and wages and benefits as a share of provincial GDP are the lowest in the country. Raising fees even a fraction of what Dr. Zerbe proposes will result in one thing: an exodus (upon graduation) of skilled (and indebted) workers from a province that is already facing a dire shortage of skilled workers. Perhaps the provincial Minister of Industry ought to give him a lesson in basic economics.

Thirdly, he makes the argument that students don’t appreciate their education because it costs so little. Well in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have a term for this kind of argument: “spinning a yarn.” We also have a special term in Newfoundland and Labrador for those who think something is worthless unless it costs a fortune: snob. Thankfully, centuries of harsh living has taught most of us to be far more practical and realistic. When I walk into a store and the clerk says “Would you like to buy a block of our smoked gouda? It’s the best gouda around and the lowest price you’ll find!” I don’t reply “Begone, plebian! You’re trying to poison me with cheap gouda! Bring me your most expensive!” Instead, I take a small sample to verify the quality, and then I order five of them, and use the money I saved to buy a nice bottle of wine and I think to myself that the world’s just fine.

‘Snob strategy’: poor research, poor ideas

But let’s examine this last point a bit further. When pressed on the issue, Macleans reports that Dr. Zerbe defended his “snob” strategy by citing a research study, in which students purportedly said that they would spend more money than they had budgeted if it meant this would give them better job chances and connections with industry. Well duh. Guarantee me a job and sure, I’ll toss you an extra $50. Does he propose to offer money-back guarantees if students don’t get their dream job upon graduation?

More disturbingly, it also appears that Dr. Zerbe didn’t read beyond the first three pages of the study. Because the study itself actually contradicts his argument. It actually argues that cost is an enormous factor in students’ decisions: “Both full-time and part-time MBAs are most likely to agree that ‘The cost of my course had a significant impact on where I chose to study.'” (this is even stated in a section titled – in LARGE RED LETTERS – “Value doesn’t mean cost.” Do we need to repeat that, Dr. Zerbe?

Memorial: a reputation for low cost, high quality and high academic strength.

But, for those who fail to get the point (ahem, paying attention, Dr. Zerbe?) it reiterates in conclusion: “There appears to be a link in students’ minds between value for money and brand reputation. Schools which students perceived as being low cost but high quality and high academic strength also tended to have a more positively regarded brand than other schools.”

Well, you can’t get much clearer than that. If there’s one school with a reputation for low cost, high quality and high academic strength, it’s Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Business students doing the job their dean isn’t

Indeed, Memorial’s business students are among the proud lot responsible for upholding that reputation. Just last month, the Globe and Mail reported that MUN swept the national university business school competitions, dominating the championships – as they have for at least the past six years – and winning the top awards.

“By clocking 26,057 volunteer hours, reaching 5,197 individuals in their community and creating an economic impact of $2,915,355 over the past year, SIFE Memorial deftly demonstrated why they should take home the cup.”

There’s a reason Memorial’s business students (low fees and all) are the best in the country. It’s because accessible, low fees have ensured a diverse and creative variety of students from all over the province, country and world have come to Memorial to study business (and so much else). It is because those students are not tens of thousands of dollars in debt that they are able to clock the volunteer hours, learn the problem-solving and real-life skills that got them through the competition, and develop the teamwork dynamic that enabled Newfoundland and Labrador to beat all other business schools across the country. These are not the rich snobs Dr. Zerbe prefers to recruit for $10,000 fees. These are the best, brightest and most creative business students in the country, and they are the ones the Newfoundland and Labrador business community will need if we are to flourish in the coming decades.

Rogue rants risk relationship

On a serious note, MUN President Kachanoski needs to rein in his rogue dean. Dr. Zerbe is misappropriating valuable university – public – time and resources into a strategy to undermine the very tuition freeze policy that both his employer (MUN) and the government have agreed upon. Most employees who use company funds to undermine their employer (not to mention their customers) don’t last very long.

An accessible post-secondary system is not a quaint perk; it is the lifeblood of this province.

He also risks generating a political timebomb just as the province is about to head into an election. Efforts by the previous university president to challenge and undermine provincial policy on tuition fees contributed in a significant way to creating a dysfunctional working relationship with the provincial government. The new university president (also a come-from-away, but not so much a n00b) has done an excellent job thus far in aligning his initiatives with the province’s accessible public post-secondary education policy. Dr. Zerbe’s blatant disregard for this hard work threatens this positive relationship just as it is beginning to get off the ground.

For all his faults, Joey Smallwood understood one thing very clearly. If Newfoundland and Labrador was to survive confederation with Canada, it would do so only on the strength of its education system. For an island in the harshest climate of the North Atlantic, with a small population and beset by some of the greatest transportation and industrial challenges faced in the industrialized world, only a strong, accessible post-secondary system will ensure that skilled workers and immigrants are drawn here, and that those of us who were born or come to live here are able to develop the skills to surmount these challenges and make Newfoundland and Labrador great. An accessible post-secondary system is not a quaint perk; it is the lifeblood of this province.

And don’t be messing with the lifeblood.

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