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Budget reaction mixed

New support welcomed, but core funding a concern

Memorial University’s acting president has offered support for the provincial budget. Dr. Eddy Campbell said while the budget provides a welcome increase in Memorial’s operating budget, that increase is less than what the university requires to meet its rising costs.

Dr. Campbell said that the announced funding for new initiatives will help the university advance its strategic plan. He also welcomed the new funding to address issues relating to student debt. However, he cautioned that the future of the university is also dependent on increased core support for the university.

Memorial’s operating grant was increased by $21 million. “In the current economic climate that is a significant investment,” he said. “But we actually needed and requested closer to $27 million to meet the core obligations related to faculty and staff salaries and benefits, utilities costs and other fixed costs.

“For example, we have maintained our salary costs within the government template across all of our employee groups, but the funding for salaries and benefits doesn’t meet the actual obligation. In fact, it falls about $3 million short. Finding that shortfall within the university’s budget presents considerable challenges every year.”

Dr. Campbell welcomed the funding for new initiatives at the Marine Institute, the School of Social Work, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College and the Faculty of Medicine. He also singled out the new $1 million funding for graduate student fellowships as an important component of Memorial’s strategic plan.

“The government has heeded our call to enhance support for graduate students,” he said. “This initiative complements the province’s immigration strategy, but this funding alone is not sufficient. We still require action on international student supports and we need newer learning and research facilities for our students, especially in the sciences.”

Last summer in response to requests from student groups and government, Memorial’s Board of Regents reversed an earlier decision to increase international student tuition fees, the revenues of which were targeted to enhance support for international students, many of whom are graduate students.

“We sought funding in this budget to support international students, as we did last year, but those initiatives were not funded, so we will be challenged to provide the range of services that our competitor universities do to attract and serve these students,” said Dr. Campbell. “We simply don’t have the resources we need for this.”

Dr. Campbell added that Memorial has also been seeking funding for new science research facilities for several years. “Memorial’s research activity attracts significant external funding to the province,” he said. “If we are to grow our research capacity and provide appropriate facilities for graduate students and research faculty and staff, we really do have to address the need for a new sciences research building soon.

“Memorial’s research has grown faster than any other comprehensive university in this country over the past five years, but we have hit a plateau – not because of a lack of creativity, initiative or drive of our people, but simply because we don’t have the appropriate space to grow it any further. That case has been put to government over the past several years and still requires attention. The situation is critical.”

In other areas of capital investment, Dr. Campbell said the budget news was mixed. He cited continued support for an academic building for Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial’s campus in Corner Brook, and for residences there and in St. John’s, among other special capital initiatives, particularly at the Marine Institute and in the medical school.

He explained that Memorial has had an infrastructure renewal plan in front of government for several years and without commitment to that renewal, students will continue to work in 40-50 year old science labs. And he again stressed that it is the core capital funding for Memorial that he sees as an outstanding concern.

“For example, we have a serious deferred maintenance problem that resulted from decades of underfunding, all of which is understandable given the fiscal realities the province has faced over those many years, “ he said. “This budget provides $4 million. This is welcome. But, we actually requested $19 million to address chronic maintenance issues across all of our campuses. So we’re left with some tough choices as to what maintenance projects we can fund. We will have to do only the most critical and leave the rest for future years in the hope that we do not suffer some serious failure of systems or equipment or a problem with a building.

“There is also a pressing need for additional space for the Marine Institute as well as infrastructure that enables us to undertake the research that is required for Newfoundland and Labrador to prosper and grow,” he said. “Simply put, Memorial’s potential is constrained by our existing space. We are stretched well beyond capacity.”

Dr. Campbell acknowledged that the global financial crisis and its impact on provincial government revenues mean that the university has to temper its expectations. But he remained hopeful that with an improved economy in the coming months and years, the provincial government will move to address the endemic core funding problem and some of the other priority areas.

“Memorial University is critically important to the development of the entire province,” Dr. Campbell said. “Public funding invested in the university returns large dividends to our economy and to our society. Memorial has a comprehensive strategic plan that we developed in consultation with the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. The plan anticipates growth throughout the university and we look forward to working with the government to achieve that goal.”

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