That’s Ottawa at sunset last week. They have real spring there. Just sayin’. Although I was in the nation’s capital and then Vancouver last week for two sets of meetings, my mind was pretty much taken up with our current budget challenges. I did a fair job, I think, of pretending to listen to various presentations and lectures while emailing various discussion points back home. As I write this, I must insist that the whole picture has not yet come together. We know what government has taken from our base budget and what they consider to be one-time sacrifice, but the business of managing the consequences falls on the university and it is that project to which so many of us have been dedicated for several weeks now.
For anyone interested in learning the facts, we have put together some information about Memorial’s budget process and made it available online at http://www.mun.ca/vpc/budgetupdate2015-16.php.
Of course, when something like this budget crunch thing happens everyone is an expert: administrative types like me, the collective bargaining units, students, the public, and the predictable class of trolls who comment in poor English and with misplaced apostrophes on any web site available to them. There’s too much evidence of MUN-bashing out there but one has to take it in stride in a consider-the-source sort of way. I try not to let that stuff get to me, but I do wonder what dark wells of spite and meanness it all comes from.
Students are especially clamoring to get their complaints about possible tuition hikes in as wide circulation as possible. As I have said before, I don’t blame them one bit. Sometimes the rhetoric is too exaggerated and dramatic for my ears, but it’s all part of the public relations game, if sometimes a skewed and misrepresented one. And the media are only too happy to fill their air and print space with accounts of MUN crisis and turmoil. It sure beats the endless reporting about degenerates at the courthouse or the size of potholes on Kenmount Road. I have been working in and with media for too long to get too worked up about quotations used out of context, hurriedly written stories, and fairly incorrect citing of the facts, but one tries to get the best and most accurate account in front of reporters and hopes for the best. Sometimes, too often, colleagues who say stupid stuff dispirit me, but then I am sure they feel the same about me.
Frankly, I do believe that the debate, if that’s what we can call the noisy chatter and ongoing commentary about the provincial budget cuts to Memorial, is healthy, Internet trolls notwithstanding. Citizens inside and beyond the institution should be asking how we deploy the generous grants the province gives Memorial; if there are better ways of running a complex post secondary institution such as this then let’s talk about them, with the facts, and without false assumptions and self-serving generalizations. If there are silver linings here they lie in the forced recognition of potential savings, in admitting where there are areas of administrative excess and potential savings. I do believe that in the long run we will improve how we do our work at Memorial, compelled as we are to trim as much as possible without undermining the integrity of our core mission and purpose. Not easy but necessary.
One question that rarely gets raised in all the clamor and banter is just what kind of university does the province want? I often like to point to the German example where tuition is, except for some modest fees, free to domestic and international students alike. The same can be said of Norway and Sweden. But who is paying for those students’ “right” to a free education? Who do you think? Tax payers. Norway, Sweden, and Germany have high tax regimes—and high costs of living. Those countries are, to date, more than willing to support an educated, highly skilled generation of learners well into the future. Either you admire that or you don’t buy it at all.
Would we be willing to do the same thing? Would Newfoundlanders? Why am I skeptical? I don’t see our elected officials even remotely hinting at the possibility. Perhaps because they know the electorate wouldn’t entertain the Norwegian/Swedish/German alternative. Personally, I would be happy to have my taxes raised to pay for every single student at Memorial, domestic and beyond, but am I in a minority? And if Newfoundlanders aren’t willing to subsidize university—and college—students fully, then just how much should students (and their families) have to share in the costs of running the place, of delivering the programs and keeping the place warm and safe and 21st century research-ready? If a free tuition model isn’t possible then how much is too much?
Further, do the citizens of the province want Memorial to be an important site of research and scholarship, generating new ideas and creative solutions to local and global problems in the 21st century, or would they be happy to downsize to a smaller polytechnic school, perhaps a liberal arts college? Do we want Memorial to be a distinguished university or just a mediocre ho hum one? It would be good to know so we could get on with the business of planning the future.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We are looking squarely at a 20 million, possibly even a 40 million dollar budget cut, most of that to the base. We have to absorb that deep cut now and into the future, and, as I have been repeatedly saying, it’s not “on the backs of the students.” It’s going to be on all of our backs. Tuition fees are rising all over the continent. Even with the proposed hikes to internationals and all graduate students (which I would so happily not have to see) Memorial will still offer the lowest tuition in the country. Thirty percent sounds like a lot, until you realize what it is a percentage of…. Again, without higher taxes and a government willing to subsidize the loss of those revenues we have to figure out how best to go forward. I want to go forward like Sweden, Norway, and Germany, but I’m not so foolish as to think our government—or our fellow citizens–see it the same way.