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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Starving higher education

Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John's Campus.
Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John's Campus. - SaltWire File Photo

You hear about the flashy stuff, but little else.

Mostly, it’s been Memorial University students, complaining that they shouldn’t have to bear a tuition increase, even though tuition has been frozen since 1999.

But that’s a fragment of what’s really going on — at this point, Memorial University doesn’t really have a financial leg to stand on.

MUN is required by the province to have a balanced budget, but as a recent budget planning report by MUN’s Integrated Planning Committee points out, that same provincial government is making effective long-term budgeting impossible.

Here’s a snippet of what’s happening: “In the seven-year period from 2012-13 to 2018-19, Memorial University has faced operating budget cuts of $30.4 million (which includes $6.0 million in salary cost reduction resulting from the government-mandated Attrition Plan from 2016-17 to 2018-19). In addition, deferred maintenance funding has been reduced from $10.0 million to $0.This decline has had a significant impact on all areas of the institution and required that the University consider its future viability, while focusing much of its attention on cuts to spending and identifying efficiencies.”

You can, if you want, see the whole report here.

On the one hand, the province pays a grant to offset tuition increase: on the other, though, it’s been cutting support: “While the grant-in-aid to freeze tuition has increased by $16 million over the past four years, it has been counteracted by grant reductions of $33 million, a pension plan funding reduction of $21 million, and a capital budget reduction of $9.4 million. This amounts to more than $63 million in cuts.”

The university has brought in new fees — a campus renewal fee to try and keep up with deteriorating physical assets, and a student services fee.

But the university is continuing to fall behind. It now has $484 million in deferred maintenance on the books. Keeping the physical structure of the university where it is would cost $24 million a year, money MUN doesn’t have, so it will no doubt continue to let buildings and other fixed assets deteriorate.

To keep things in clear perspective, buildings like the current science building are falling so far behind in maintenance so much that a better option than to repair them might be to tear them down — and that’s under active consideration.

The main problem is that the university has a budget gap of $11.4 million — money it simply doesn’t have.

The provincial government can’t have it all ways: it can’t order a balanced budget, order the university to hold the line on tuition, and at the same time, cut back financial support.

So the recommendation is to increase tuition, while using either provincial grants or differential tuition rates to allow those access to those who can’t afford increased tuition.

“Newfoundland and Labrador students represent 75 per cent of the undergraduate student population and therefore rate increases to this group in particular are essential. Proposing an increase to tuition rates for provincial students requires collaboration with the provincial government to implement a progressive funding model that allocates greater funding to those students most affected by the tuition rate increase,” the report says.

The increase, though, is not even going to affect those already in the system. The increases would come into effect in 2021, to allow those who are in the system to continue under the same financial terms.

The provincial government can’t have it all ways: it can’t order a balanced budget, order the university to hold the line on tuition, and at the same time, cut back financial support. It is the utmost in short-term thinking: telling MUN it has to eke by for another year, without thinking about how the weight of those fiscal shortcuts are piling up.

And piling up, they are.

There’s only one way that combination of factors will end.

And it’s not with a functioning university, training students in this province for better jobs and futures.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky


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