June 28th, 2013
So I am finally back from sunny Portugal. Just a few days ago I was sitting in a café on the magnificent central square in Lisbon (see above), sipping a cold cocktail and gawking at the citizens coping with mid- ‘thirties heat. Back in Canada now, catching up in much cooler climes. Yes, the weather is better and the Portuguese can do more inventive things with cod than all the chefs in Newfoundland, but the day after we left there was a long-planned general strike and the entire public transportation system came to an abrupt halt. For weeks the two largest unions in the country had been marshalling citizens to rally against the austerity measures taken up by the government, following in the path of so many European nations. Sun, history, cod, and vino verde notwithstanding, Canada is a much more stable country.
Portugal is facing severe financial difficulties. You could see it on the faces of so many unemployed young men. Bold and profane graffiti defaced many important historic churches and monuments, surely a sign of unrest and dis-ease. At night in Lisbon the streets were filled with gangs of these men emerging from the bars, bored and high and restless—a deadly combination. They seemed lost and harmless from the hotel window, but they made an enormous amount of noise right through sunrise. Perhaps it’s a good thing, but police were far and few between. Perhaps they know it’s best not to interfere with the sullen condition of so many youngsters. In front of the university in the old city, other young men practiced their skateboarding techniques, teetering precariously on their tiny wheeled, wooden slabs, avoiding classes or just working off their youthful energy. In general, and despite the heat, there was a current of restlessness in the capital city, to be sure.
Returning home brings one face to face with matters strictly local and Canadian, matters that don’t add up to much in the global picture but need attention, nonetheless. Brewing locally is a story about disgruntled graduate Engineering students from China who in frustration and anger even went to the CBC to air their complaints. The CBC reporter did a classic sound-bite bit of reporting, misrepresented the information and shaped the narrative of the story in highly biased ways, about as lazy a brand of journalism as it gets. But you have to roll with those cheap shots and move on. More fair and thorough was a story that appeared this week about the same situation in the online publication, Inside Higher Ed. That reporter listened hard during the interview and seemed to understand the complexity of the situation, appreciating both the students’ and the institutions’ views of where the truth might lie. There are recurring challenges facing both international students and the institutions that admit them, and we are always learning from the relationship.
One has to feel the pain of students, especially international ones, who fail out of premium tuition courses. For them the consequences are shattering: student visas expire, deportation awaits, the investment in education seems wasted, and returning home empty-handed brings humiliation. No one wants to see that happen. But the real question is how well aligned are a student’s potential for success and the institutional responsibility for that student to succeed? What do you do when a student just can’t cut it, no matter how hard the institution has tried to endure conditions for success? At what point does one have to say enough?
This is a difficult question to resolve, but an important one to pursue. Has the institution lived up to its promise to ensure success? This is another important question. We are now launching a formal review of all our premium fee programs, as we ritualistically should be, to ensure we are both delivering the very highest quality graduate programs and facilitating student program completion—all while making international students at home and welcome in a culture and environment not their own. I cannot predict what that review will yield or what recommendations it might make but we welcome all suggestions for improvement. Memorial needs to serve its students—domestic and international—as fully and as supportively as possible.