Gutting MUN won’t solve Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial woes

Anyone who cares about the future of Newfoundland and Labrador must be alarmed by the province’s assault on our only university. Russell Wangersky’s May 14 column illustrates the situation starkly. On one hand, we have sustained cuts to Memorial’s operating budget; on the other, rising costs, reflecting both inflation and a crumbling infrastructure that puts MUN’s workers and students in harm’s way. Memorial’s senior administration sees increased tuition fees as a means to close the gap, but the governing Liberals have made it clear they will respond by reducing the transfer payment such that every dollar gained in tuition fees is matched by one dollar less in MUN’s grant from the government.

Memorial’s student unions rightly point out that affordable tuition is a major draw —  both to a province facing a deficit of young people and to a city that a recent study places at the bottom of a liveability list for young Canadians. And that’s leaving aside wider arguments for affordable tuition, the demands of social justice and the long-term economic benefits of an educated population among them. MUNFA, the union representing Memorial’s academic staff, agrees that we must protect Memorial’s broad accessibility. But, with our students, we believe the government must match its protection of tuition fairness with a commitment to the institution’s viability as a centre of teaching and research.

Wangersky suggests drastic action: “pick an expensive program that the provincial government particularly likes, and announce that it’s being discontinued. Heck, maybe a cash-strapped university can’t afford to operate two campuses on opposite sides of a big island anymore.” We can only hope he is making this suggestion in a spirit akin to Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” for dealing with Irish poverty by selling poor infants to the rich for food: as a polemic designed to provoke. Then again, if the provincial Liberals have their way, few enough may be allowed the broad education needed to get the reference, which amounts to selling (out) our young by other means.

MUNFA’s take? We still see places where Memorial’s senior administrators divert funds from the university’s core teaching and research mission to the trappings of corporatization.

Nothing symbolizes this better than the continued use of outside headhunters for administrative job searches. But no amount of adjustments to the entertainment and marketing budgets can counteract cuts of the magnitude imposed on MUN by the current government — a government that has compounded those cuts by abandoning its obligation to address the unfunded liability in the MUN pension fund before passing the plan along to the joint responsibility of the University and its employees.

MUNFA members understand that we have all been put between this rock and hard place by disastrous decisions made by previous governments, the folly of Muskrat Falls chief among them. But destroying Newfoundland and Labrador’s public university is not the solution we need.

In the end, if we lose the means to learn our history, we will be condemned to repeat it.

Robin Whitaker,
President, Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association

*This letter was published by the Telegram on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 –