MUN tuition and the myth of meritocracy

Ahead of Thursday’s decision by Memorial University’s Board of Regents to raise tuition for select students, the school’s provost revealed the fiction on which administrators hold the belief they’re not hurting students.

On Thursday students interrupted and forced the relocation of a Memorial University Board of Regents meeting where members of the university’s decision-making body were voting to hike tuition and other student fees.

The protest was the latest in a recent string of actions directed at MUN’s administration over its handling of the provincial government’s cuts to post-secondary funding.

Though Thursday’s meeting rendered a majority decision to hike tuition for ‘non-NL’ students, it was the actions of a senior university administrator 48 hours prior that perhaps said more about the perspective of MUN decision-makers on the cost of post-secondary education for students.

MUN Provost and Vice-President Academic Noreen Golfman made headlines Tuesday when, en route to a Senate meeting on campus, she mocked a group of students protesting the proposed tuition hikes and lavish administrational spending. The encounter was turned into a GIF that went viral among social media users in the province.

Noreen Golfman GIF

Then began a series of tweets in which Golfman took jabs at the protesters:

Golfman also propounded some bullshit notion of meritocracy:

Meritocracy doesn’t translate to reality

For those who do not know what a meritocracy is, it’s the utopian belief that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. It’s also the sociological myth that our neoliberal capitalist system is founded upon. A little extra emphasis on myth.

As a student who has lived through a life of mental illness and poverty, I take offense to the naïve suggestion that we live in a utopia where everyone has equitable access to education.

I spent my life dreaming of becoming a scholar. I grew up in a basement apartment as a son of a single mother who juggled school, the domestic work of raising children, and a low-paying job to put a pot of Kraft Dinner on the table in the evenings. I fantasized, as I picked about in my plate of cheesy noodles, about the distant and out of reach prospects of learning and writing.

Mental illness, poverty, and social stigma led me to drop out of high school when I was 16. I spent quite some time roaming the streets hungry, taking copious amounts of drugs to relieve existential anguish, and eventually wound up working full-time in a factory in Brampton, Ontario. It was in this factory, toiling over heavy boxes of raw chicken, that I decided to go back to high school.

I moved in with my father and got my high school diploma. I later graduated with an honours degree after working hard, studying alone every evening. 

My first offer of admission into an undergraduate program was from the University of Toronto. However, the unsavoury combination of a high cost of living and enormous tuition fees pushed me to reject the offer of admission and go back to the work force. So much for the promises of meritocracy.

I saved a small amount of money rolling burritos in Mississauga and tried the university thing again a year later. I was offered admissions into Concordia University in Montreal. I received government loans and moved into a tiny dump of an apartment. I was advised by my landlord to keep the blinds closed so not to invite the attention of thieves and thugs. The smell of weed and cigarettes seeped in through cracks in the walls. And I slept to the occasional sounds of brawling in the alleyway.

My loans couldn’t cover everything so I dived into dumpsters between classes to put food on the table. I eventually got evicted from my tiny dump for lacking money to pay rent.

At the end of my first year, I was couch surfing around the city for lack of any tangible home. Clearly, I couldn’t afford a second year. This, despite my decent GPA. Again, so much for the promises of meritocracy.

The next year, after a blistering spring and summer planting trees for pennies in Northern Ontario, I moved home to Corner Brook, following an offer of admission to Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus.

MUN was the only place in the country where I could afford post-secondary education.

MUN was the only place in the country where I could afford post-secondary education. And through the intermittent hazes of mania—likely brought about by my various life stressors as an impoverished student—as well as the inevitable dips into depression and suicidal ideation, I made it through years of study and received an Academic Excellence reward for my efforts. I still barely got by. Again, so much for meritocracy.

I started off on the streets and, over a decade or more, climbed into the ivory tower. Not without injury.

I literally could not have done this if it weren’t for the hard work of activists in the student movement rallying for Newfoundland’s first tuition freeze. In 1999 the provincial government, under the leadership of Premier Brian Tobin, implemented a tuition freeze. Two years later Tobin’s successor, Roger Grimes, began reducing MUN tuition fees — 25 percent over three years.

One of the largest contributing factors to these decisions was consistent and obstructive student protest. After students intervened, Tobin reportedly said, “the students made it impossible for me not to freeze tuition fees”.

The government didn’t give us this win easily, but eventually succumbed to growing public unrest.

Without this tuition freeze, I’d be still toiling away in a chicken factory. This isn’t to say that there’s any problem with being a labourer, but citizens of this country should have equitable access to the means of opportunity.

For those of us who are not born into wealth and affluence, who lack social connections, who suffer through mental illness or other disabilities, who are stigmatized by normative culture, or who are otherwise restrained from being able to achieve what others take for granted—cheap tuition is our only access to what is literally given to others.

So while Noreen Golfman and the rest of the bourgeois senior administration at Memorial University go on their expensive trips and feast off the public dollar, there are others who are giving everything they have and barely getting by — and far too many who aren’t getting by at all.

No, Noreen, meritocracy is a myth and work ethic isn’t some simple algorithm of success. This is a basic sociological fact.

In a province plagued with growing unemployment, poverty, and inequality—anyone who lives here, regardless of where they come from, needs public support for a basic level of education.

Kyle Curlew is a Master’s student of the sociology of surveillance at Queen’s University, a freelance journalist, and an academic activist. He writes to expose surveillance issues in technology, media, and politics in order to inform the public of the threat of ubiquitous watching.

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