Leslie Claire Amminson
Over the past few weeks, Memorial University’s Integrated Planning Committee has hosted budget consultation meetings with students, faculty and staff as they prepare to tackle this year’s budget.
“My personal motivation has been to share with the community a reality that is often perceived to be shared by just too few people,” said Provost Noreen Golfman, “and to open up the conversation as a kind of listening opportunity.”
Memorial has seen 18.4 million dollars in cuts from the provincial government since the fiscal year 2012-2013, which puts the University in a tough financial position.
But students are worried that the prospect of further tuition increases will disproportionately affect students who already struggle with the accessibility of postsecondary education.
“Until recently, NL has maintained a vision of accessible education since 1999, bucking the national trend of de-funding post-secondary education and downloading the costs onto the backs of students,” said Rizza Umali, Executive Director of External Affairs at the Graduate Students’ Union, “Education is a social equalizer, and Memorial, by making education accessible, is actually unique in terms of going against a status quo that perpetuates economic inequality.”
“Students came with a united message to these townhalls: No more fee hikes. No more cuts. We need the university to show their commitment to students as their priority and to stand with us in solidarity against any cuts to post-secondary education,” she wrote.
Memorial projects that further cuts, valued at 15.95 million dollars, will be made by the year 2019-2020, and the university is required to balance its budget.
“At what point are you not serving your students if you can’t give them the quality program they came here for? What’s that tipping point?” said Golfman.
“What’s the balance between quality and affordability?” she added.
In this respect, student unions are similarly concerned that a decrease in funding will negatively affect students from both ends.
Umali explained that fee hikes result in “graduate students having to work more hours part-time to make ends meet and afford their education, which affects their ability to devote time and energy into their research. Furthermore, academic supports that are essential to graduate students such as the Writing Centre, and access to academic journals have been affected by budget cuts, impacting our ability to do research that the University celebrates.”
Therefore, the university is reaching out. Golfman estimates that the administration has spoken with roughly six hundred to seven hundred members of the university community in an effort to initiate creative solutions to budget challenges.
Golfman says the administration is looking for input “about where both savings can be had and revenue can be generated to help us manage what’s a huge gap now.”
The IPC is aiming to have a draft budget report completed to be presented to President Kachanoski by the end of February, but the administration has not ruled out further cuts from the provincial government come the release of the provincial budget.
“For the last few years there have been more cuts than we had been told there would be,” stated Golfman.
Renata Lang, MUNSU’s Director of External Affairs, stated that she’d like to see unity between the administration and students. “I think we’ve identified that there’s no good place to cut,” she said. “From academic programming to student services to the infrastructure that we need.”
At the second consultation meeting that was open to students, many wondered if there was more the University could do to unite with the community in an effort to recover funding from the province.
“We have repeatedly reached out to university administration to work together in lobbying the provincial government, and they now have an opportunity to show that they are listening or responding to students’ concerns. Budgets reflect priorities – we need a University that prioritizes its students. Furthermore, given the economic realities of the province, we have also expressed that the university (with students) in cooperation with the provincial government, must lobby the federal government for an increase in transfer payments to adequately fund post-secondary education in this province,” wrote Umali.
Golfman responded: “We’re talking to government all the time […] the province is also dealing with huge challenges […] we know the province is in a very serious situation, so we have a moral responsibility as a public university to work with the province to try and find solutions while maintaining our autonomy.”