MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY OVERDUE FOR AN OVERHAUL

Guest Post
by Karl Sullivan


A full review of our health and education systems, in light of the
Province’s fiscal challenges, is an absolute necessity. Those areas of
expenditure, aside from reducing the size of the public service, constitute the
greatest opportunities to reduce government spending. A review should focus
upon the affordability of these services rather than our wants and needs.
Otherwise, the growing public debt will require more profound measures to
address the problem of excessive public spending.
This commentary will chiefly address spending on Memorial University although
there is room for savings in K-12 education. The number of teachers has
remained constant at about 5,600 since 1965 even while the enrolment in public
schools has dropped from 144,000 to about 66,000 students.

I am hopeful that there will be a thorough analysis of the public school
system and the health care system, too, in an effort to find savings without
necessarily reducing the high standards essential to the maintenance of a
modern society. I expect Uncle Gnarley Blog will find space for such
contributions as it has for this one.
At the outset, I suggest Memorial is a good comprehensive
university. However, its existing structure is unaffordable. It is a prime
place to find savings.

Memorial’s cost per full-time student per year, according to the
Maclean’s 2016 rankings, is $19,155. The figure compares with $13,200 and
$13,800 for UNB and Dalhousie, respectively.
We can
debate the reasons for the cost differences but it cannot be reasonably argued
that Memorial’s cost per full-time student equivalent should be higher than
every University in Canada.
It is my
opinion that there is no justification for costs to have risen to such a level.
Other schools have science and medical programs, too, and more than one campus,
etc., and offer programs not available at Memorial. 
Memorial’s administration, and the Government of the Province, should be
mindful that the primary mandate of the University is to provide a post
secondary education for Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans. That focus seems to
have changed and not without consequent budgetary implications. I suggest w
e cannot afford a vision in which
growth is based primarily upon low tuition, and which asks NL taxpayers to
highly subsidize out-of-province students.
Memorial’s Enrolment Plan 2020, which establishes enrolment targets and
objectives for the seven year period 2014-15 to 2020-21, is a growth model
based in large part on a substantially increasing undergraduate and graduate
enrolment. It assumes an undergraduate population of about 15,400 students by
2020 and a graduate student population of about 4,800 students.
Compare this stated goal to 14,208 undergraduate and 3,565 graduate
students enrolled at Memorial in 2013. While the increases may not seem large,
the achievement of these targets is substantially dependent upon the attraction
of other Canadian and international students at highly subsidized tuition
relative to that offered by other Canadian universities. The Plan notes that it
will require a fiscal investment in various forms of direct and indirect
graduate student support (from government) during the expansion period”
.
The Government has decreased its grant to Memorial in each of the past
two years. I believe this is a positive step. But it does not go far enough.
While a university by definition should not be parochial and should have
diversity in its student population, Enrolment Plan 2020 is clearly not needed.
Memorial’s strength in recruiting students is founded on the promise of
a cheap education when it should be striving simply to be an outstanding
university within the limits of our fiscal capability.
The number of Newfoundland and Labrador students at
Memorial is likely to drop by 1,000 across all undergraduate years by 2020
(from about 10,500 in 2013). I suggest that the actual number is likely to be
not more than 7,500 full-time student equivalents by 2020. The number of first
year students averaged just over 1,600 from 2011-13 at all campuses, and the
retention of first year students attending Memorial into second year is very
low at <75%.
It is possible that almost half of all undergraduate students will come
from outside this Province by 2020, most attracted by low tuition. Enrolment
Plan 2020 notes that almost 3,500 undergraduate students came from outside the
province in 2013. Memorial expects an increase of a further 30%. Its plan for
graduate studies suggests 50% of the increase in enrolment will be other
Canadian and foreign students.
While they add much to the university and to the community at large,
government needs to ask: is this plan compatible with Memorial’s obligation to
the people of Newfoundland and Labrador?
I submit that it is not. It is time to right-size Memorial as its
enrolment plan can only be achieved by continuing to offer unacceptably high
subsidization of students from outside the Province, and low tuition for Newfoundland and Labrador students.
The Auditor General noted in his December, 2014 Report that “in excess
of $112 million of the Provincial 2013-14 operating grant to the University
effectively subsidizes students from outside the Province”. He also stated that
the Province spent $193.4 million since 2005-06 to support a freeze on tuition
at the University.
President Kachanoski also confirmed the role of subsidy, upon the inception of the
Enrolment Plan, stating that “the university will need the same kind of tuition
incentives to draw students to these programs to maintain a sustainable
enrolment rate” (The Telegram, Dec. 16, 2014). 
Under the 2020 Plan, the cost to support students from elsewhere would
have increased substantially.
Memorial should reshape its vision to create a University more
appropriately sized relative to the demographics of the province and to its
fiscal circumstance. In so doing it will fulfill its mandate as its pays
deference to a seriously challenged tax-paying population. A smaller university
would increase the emphasis on local students as it continues to welcome
students from elsewhere, albeit possibly in smaller numbers.
The university has enjoyed a high level of autonomy and this should
continue. However, the exigencies of our financial position suggests it is time
the institution reduced its reliance on the public treasury. It should realign
its expenditures to achieve greater consistency with other large Atlantic
Canadian universities.
Government grants to Memorial increased by $100 million over the 4-5
years to 2014-15. Student fees have not increased for several years, and are
< 15% of all University revenues. Fewer academic staff and fewer
administrative personnel will be required with a smaller university. While it
is fundamental that Memorial remains viable and competitive, I suggest this can
be achieved by right-sizing, cutting costs and increasing student fees. 
Such measures will enable the Government to reduce its funding.
Indeed, it is difficult to discern on what basis Memorial’s tuition fees
should not closely approximate levels existing in the other Atlantic
Provinces. Right-sizing the University and implementing more realistic tuition
fees for non-residents is likely to be the best guarantee that comparatively
low tuition will remain available for Newfoundland and Labrador residents.
A 50% increase in tuition rates over a 3 year time period could contribute
upwards of $30 million after three years, while accounting for an enrolment
decline. This is still only an additional $1300 per student. Tuition could be
doubled and still be less than other Canadian universities outside Quebec.
Dalhousie is a university of similar size and it reported tuition revenue of
$149 million in 2014/15, compared with Memorial’s $60 million. Dalhousie’s two
semester tuition is $5,700-7000, UNB is $6,200 and Memorial is $2,550 for
Canadian undergraduates.
In addition, the plan to convert loans to grants, introduced by the
previous administration, should be rescinded.
The tuition subsidy and student grants are most beneficial to the middle
and upper classes.
There is research (Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Policy Series No.
118, Sept, 2011) to indicate that students from low income families in Quebec and Newfoundland,
where tuition is lowest, benefit least of all from tuition subsidies.
A worrisome side effect of low tuition is that many Memorial students
appear to be not serious about their studies or are unprepared for university.
The Maclean’s 2016 university rankings report that 25.4% of Memorial
students did not return the following year. This retention rate is the fourth
lowest of over 50 Canadian universities, and well below the average retention
rate of 85% for Canadian universities. Of course, there are other reasons for
the low retention rate, including the inadequacy of our high schools to prepare
students for a higher education.
Memorial is attracting many students from other Canadian provinces who
are performing below average, according to its own research.
Non-resident students studying here obtain an average of <70% during
their first semester. There are, of course, exceptions. Is this another outcome
of low tuition rates at Memorial?
A good many bright NL students bypass Memorial for other Canadian
universities. This can only be viewed positively provided the cost of tuition
subsidy to attract new students is not draining funds for scholarship programs
to retain the very best students.
Expenditure reduction measures should contribute more in reducing
government funding to Memorial than revenue increasing measures.
Fewer students will require fewer salaried employees at all levels. It
is clearly not so easy to reduce staff and the physical plant, but it is
important to recognize the reality that a growth strategy built upon
subsidization rather than academic excellence cannot survive these difficult
times, which will be with us for many years. It also does not help that
salaries at Memorial are high by Atlantic Canadian university standards.
Hard questions need to be answered too, such as: is Grenfell affordable?
Is the plan to maintain Memorial’s enrolment being conducted at the expense of
new programs and equipment for the Marine Institute?
As noted, Memorial has the highest operating expenditure per weighted
full-time equivalent student. While we spend significantly more per student,
achievement relative to other universities is often lacking.
According to Maclean’s 2016 rankings, Memorial is tied 7th of
15 comprehensive schools. But a part of this ranking is achieved on the basis
of a high operating budget and a student faculty ratio which is the lowest of
any Canadian university. Other standings are not so generous. Memorial ranks
lower on criteria related to achievement such as student retention, the
percentage of students graduating within 7 years, faculty awards, and research
grants.
On balance, Memorial’s Enrolment Plan 2020 has good aspects. They
include the adoption of effective retention strategies, increasing degree
productivity, and the offering of distance education. None
preclude the importance of revisiting the Plan without which the cost to
government will rise substantially. The University does not provide a cost
benefit analysis of the various initiatives and recommendations proposed in the
Plan, so the net benefits are not at all clear.
There are also a good many unanswered questions regarding Plan 2020.
Here are just a few:
–   why would we need to educate so many masters and
doctorate graduates in education?
 Many will end up in the classroom
and not pursue their specialty. The degree leads to
 salary enhancement rather than to
making them better teachers.
  –  is it necessary to increase the total student
population while the number of in-province students has declined from 
about 12,500 in 2000 to 10,800 in 2013 and, given our demographic, likely to
decline even further by 2020? This increase can likely only be achieved by the
continuance of highly subsidizing tuition costs 
 – the Enrolment Plan states that the number of  undergraduate
NL students attending Memorial will decline 1,000 by 2020. Less than half all
students could be from NL. If 2013 is a good indication of future enrolment,
only 7,500 undergraduates out of 15,367 anticipated by 2020 will be native to
this province.
  -the Enrolment  Plan notes the success of the recruitment
plan but it does not offer any observation, let alone hard data, to indicate
the degree to which this plan’s success is tied  to low tuition.
Memorial’s Academic Performance Profile documents of 2012 and 2013 indicate
chronic academic underperformance, too many students enrolled in areas of study
with poor job prospects, and too many students not carrying a full academic
load. This probably suggests that there should be seating quotas for various
majors as there are for professional Schools such as Pharmacy and Medicine.
Education is valuable on its own, but do we need to educate so many students in
fields for which job prospects are just not great, but rather in areas where
job prospects are better?  Should subsidized tuition be tied to both
academic achievement and employment prospects?
The Academic Performance Profiles indicate that many students graduating
from high school are ill-prepared for university. Grade inflation in high
school means that students accepted with, for example, an average of 70% would
have achieved only about 60% under a more tightly controlled evaluation regime,
like that provided by the province’s public examinations. Indeed, the grades
awarded by high schools are often 10% less than the grades achieved on public
examinations. It should then be no surprise that many do not make it. Over 20%
of first year students take 3 or fewer courses, and students achieving <80%
average in high school do not perform very well at Memorial.
The purpose of this article is to be constructive. I, acknowledge the
fine work being done by Memorial in the education of our students. One must
also acknowledge the benefits to the greater community provided by this
institution. It might even be that the benefits outweigh the cost, but one must
return to the basic question of relative affordability measured against the
wants and needs of the entire population, especially those of the elderly and
disadvantaged. With that said, the following questions may also be worthy of
consideration:
           1.          Should
government establish fiscal targets for the University, emanating from a
consideration of all its obligations and desires?

           2.          Should
a review of the future development of the University be undertaken by a task
force embracing a combination of internal and external members joined with a
strong contingent of critical thinkers from outside the University community?

           3.          Should
any such new plan, following public input, be developed for a smaller
university requiring a smaller footprint and a reduced requirement for
infrastructure? This will require a reconsideration of the current growth
strategy built around oil revenues and an expanding population.

           4.          Can
we afford to build a comprehensive university which includes a plethora of
professional schools, such as a law school?

           5.          Should
Memorial divest itself of Grenfell, existing land, infrastructure, programs and
international assets such as Harlow?

          6.          Should
the university be challenged to focus its teaching and research on issues
germane to the social, cultural and economic development of the province?

          7.          Should
the university be asked to reform its administrative structure and consider
compensation of executives based on small stipends for academics to assume
administrative duties? This would be a departure from the existing system which
rewards managers according to the size of the empire over which they preside.  

          8.           Should
professional schools and other programs be sized on the basis of job
opportunities, adjusting enrolment as required?
 
The
fiscal condition of the province requires that our government establish
stringent spending priorities, however unpopular they may be. Education is
obviously one of those priorities but Memorial needs a sharper focus on its
primary mandate; that is to educate deserving NL students at a cost fair to
all. University education is not a right. Quality is certainly more important
than quantity.
It is
less expensive for high schools to prepare students for university than for
university to prepare them after they have arrived. Any review of Memorial’s
mandate and the academic programs it offers must extend to an examination of
whether the school system is as productive as it should be in the role of
preparing Newfoundland and Labrador’s youth for the challenges
of a post-secondary academic environment.
Public
investment in education will always be paramount concern of enlightened public
policy. But that is not the same as saying we must entertain the status quo and
that only the university should determine how much funding it should receive.
This is a seriously challenged province. Successive $2 billion deficits and a
growing debt burden are compounded by declining economic growth and an ageing
population. Public policy choices, some painful, will be necessary in the
highest cost areas, including education, to maintain our solvency.
Memorial University is
well equipped to begin a process of change; one that reduces its demand on the
public purse. If it fails recognize this is a necessary task, and our fiscal
circumstance continues to deteriorate, Memorial should worry such change will
be forced upon it.  

______________________________________________________________
Editor’s Note:

Karl Sullivan is Senior Vice-President of the Barry Group. Sullivan’s public policy
background includes twelve years with the NL provincial government in the Executive Council Office and in the Department of Fisheries. He also spent five years
with the Organization for  Economic Co-operation
and Development (OECD). Though we share the same surname, Karl is not related
to the Editor.  

GROUP SEEKS PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR CABOT MARTIN RESEARCH AWARD

Cabot Martin’s sudden passing, in September, has stirred his friends, colleagues, and others familiar with his work, to honor him and encourage continued work in applied research and public policy development.

GILBERT BENNETT AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF CRONYISM

$1 million is not bad farewell for a fellow whose work performance represents one of the principal reasons for a twenty million dollar Public Inquiry, and who failed so badly in his job so badly that NL Hydro is still trying to define the mess that he (and others) has left behind.

THE “ODE”: SHORT CUT TO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS LANDS MEMORIAL IN HOT WATER

As much as anything else, it is also a simple love song to a people and to their place. It is deficient in the language of inclusion, yes, sexist by the standards of today, too, but only those who misunderstanding the language of respect ascribe to it offense whether to aboriginal, to gender, or to religious belief.

21 COMMENTS

  1. This is the next step in the austerity being imposed on NL, beware.
    A recipe that calls for the university to be focused on "provincial" matters is just wrong.

    What this right wing agenda will do is undermine NL's future.It is exactly the wrong formula for success. It is no coincidence that Norway, with no tuition for post secondary education, has the highest per capita income in the world. They understand that a well educated population is the best investment a nation can make. It ensures higher income tax revenues and a prosperous future. Raise tuition and the NL future dims.

    • Tell that to the poor old buggers who can't get their tooth pulled because the gov't cut their medical subsidy, choosing instead to blow taxpayer dollars on subsidizing bargain hunting foreigners & other Canadians.

    • Your problem is Muskrat Falls that continues to destroy the future of NL in complete secrecy, not seniors health care or tuition. It is not one or another, both are threatened by unaccountable, unnecessary spending at MF.

    • Funny how you cherry pick Norway as justification for a bloated, over subsidized university. NL is not Norway. Norway is rich – NL is dirt poor. Bruno, you are quick to criticize all thing NL from your mainland sanctimonious perch. You have been banned from every talk show out there, but I see you have found a new venue to spew your left wing drivel. Nlers will decide how to tame the beast that is MUN – Not you!!

    • Bruno…your assertion is way too simplistic. If you are suggesting that socialism is the way to prosperity and use Norway as the poster child for success then I assume it would be equally accurate to suggest that Venezuela's failed socialism is proof of the opposite? For example you neglect to mention that Norway is also among the most expensive countries in the world and is facing challenges as oil revenues dry up. In other words the story of Norway has not been written yet and much of its' success has been because of petro dollars.

      NL's post-secondary education system (MUN) has been around for decades and has produced thousands upon thousands of graduates yet where is this wonderful utopia you assert would be created. Your theory that a well-educated population is the best investment a nation can make is again way too simplistic. The education system here has been dumbed down and MUN produces plenty of teachers, social workers and liberal arts students that are hardly the economic engine for this place. Way too simplistic.
      Keith

    • The anon bashers abound. Lots of bluster but they must hide behind the keyboard for bravado.

      I have been banished from VOCM for what George Orwell called freedom–telling people what they do not want to hear. I wear it as a badge of honour considering that the hosts have been leading the attacks on all the informed critics of MF. They fuel the false NL nationalism that has allowed your oligarch(s) to manipulate the polity with xenophobia that has now led NL off the fiscal cliff.

  2. The whole premise of this article is based on a defeatist attitude. Stop thinking like an accountant. If Memorial needs to reshape its vision, it should be doing in the context of thinking bigger. There are universities all over the US in towns with very small populations relative to the population at the universities. These schools depend on and entice students to come to them. And student do, even Canadian students. Students don't choose these schools because they are cheap, they choose them because they offer a high quality education in a location that doesn't cost them huge amounts of money in living expenses. Tuition is high but the cost of living is relatively low. St. John's offers a relatively low cost of living compared to many other large centres across this country and certainly across the world.‎

    Forget about the demographic of NL, the shrinking number of NL students and an emphasis on local students. This is just a recipe for the race to the bottom.

    As you say, "implementing more realistic tuition fees for non-residents is certainly required." I couldn't agree more. Charge the right fees to non-residents so that NL doesn't have to pick up the tab. Memorial will still be able to fulfill its mandate of ‎providing a post secondary education for NLers and become an even more respected learning institution.

    Think bigger, think quality. Have the right vision and strategy to support it. We will all be better for it.

  3. There's a lot wrong with this cynical and narrow-minded assessment of Memorial University — not the least of which is the author's pervasive perception of MUN as nothing more than a jobs factory, when the reality is that a post-secondary education is so much more than that.

    But worst of all, to my mind, is that the author does not seem to understand the context in which MUN exists, and the ramifications of that context on the way the University operates. This is made clear by his shallow comparison of Memorial to Maritime universities such as UNB and Dalhousie. Granted, at first blush this may seem like a reasonable basis for comparison. But it ignores the fact that a student in, say, Halifax can live at (or very close to) home and go to any one of a number of institutions. A program not offered at Dalhousie may instead be offered at St Mary's, or Acadia, or Mount Saint Vincent… There is no inherent demand that a single university be all things to all students.

    On the other hand, Memorial University is the only university in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. There is a longstanding expectation — on the part of both the Provincial Government and (more importantly) the people of this province — that MUN accommodate as many university-eligible Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as possible. As such, MUN has prided itself over the years on offering a tremendous number of options for undergraduate and graduate students. Under the program contraction touted by the author, the number of young people forced to leave the province in order to find their desired post-secondary program would swell to levels that, in my opinion, would be deemed reprehensible by the general public, and which would have potentially catastrophic implications for the long-term demographics of Newfoundland and Labrador.

    Now, the author is right that the number of students graduating from high school in the province is decreasing, which in turn impacts the number of university-eligible Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. But this is precisely why MUN has made such an effort to recruit out-of-province (Canadian and international) students over the last 15 years. Not only do these students provide the critical mass to retain some programs that might otherwise be at risk, but they also bring well-documented economic gains to the province, in addition to providing unquantifiable cultural benefits.

    Fundamentally, the author's position would not just trim the fat of Memorial University. It would diminish the institution to a pale shadow of its current self, would drive tremendous numbers of our young people out of the province (perhaps never to return), and would seriously undermine a vital cog in the economic and cultural engines of Newfoundland and Labrador.

  4. At the present time when we are closing most all the libraries across the provinces to same 1 million dollars, MUN is tendering for the CORE building, budgeted for some 400 million dollars. And I guess they may not include furniture, future maintenance and new staff and their pension plans. This at a time when we are told we are headed for bankruptcy if there is not serious restraint. Corner Brook hospital, promised for the past 10 years and close to 100 million spent on design, is a project on hold. The St. Johns jail, and the the Waterford Mental Health hospital, built before the American civil war, is on hold, and not even a design done. As a MUN graduate, I have little information of the need and purpose of the CORE building. I am long of the opinion that MUN is an entity unto itself, where there is little oversight of the public dollars, much like Nalcor. Budgets is a question of priorities, and this post by Mr Sullivan largely reflects concerns I have had for years.
    As for Bruno's opinion, we are far removed from the 1960s when few had university education. And if university education was of such great value, why have so many been misinformed so easily on the value of the Muskrat Falls project. List, if you can the MUN graduates, and there are many thousands, who have been vocal on the risks of MF, and you will find a very short list. As a province we were as easily mislead as in Joey's day, when we were largely uneducated. We are not an informed society. Being informed is a civic responsibility, which is too much trouble for many…. as I see it.
    I have a reason for not giving my name, which may be obvious.

    • If you're referring to the Core Sciences Building, it's being built because the alternatives are either to spend more than $400 million to upgrade the existing facilities, or for MUN to cease offering virtually all laboratory-based Science programs. While not diminishing the importance of the other projects you mention, I think it's evident that the Core Sciences Building is of critical value to the province.

  5. I recommend readers see SIR ROBERT BOND PAPERS blog to day….about a discussion this evening at the Harris Centre on the cause of our bankruptcy in 1934….. and Hollett's view that the problem is with ourselves, not any institution….. that as a people we are afraid to question those in power.
    Seems a good point of view. He comments also on the issue of Steve Marshall and Roger Grimes. I live on the street with Steve. Chatted briefly with him once, several years ago, so I little know him. Must agree with Hollett, and even if he could legally bar Rogers, it seems to belittle Steve Marshall, or so I think.
    Winston Adams, Logy Bay

  6. While I disagree with much of what Karl Sullivan has to say, I do accept the overall point that MUN needs a fundamental rethink, which in my view should be carried out by an independent and highly qualified commission or commissioner.
    I note that no mention is made of administrative bloat, which seems excessive to many of us, nor to the fact that MUN's President is paid more than his equivalent at the University of Toronto.

  7. MUN has recently had a huge expansion in administration positions and has bureaucracy that is totally out of proportion to enrollment. In the 1970s, professors would take on admin duties in return for reduced teaching duties that semester. Now these positions are held by permanent, well paid staff. It is an empire out of control and hell bent on expansion because the local population is too small to allow for continuous expansion.

    I would like to hear from some older professors that can give concrete examples of point 7 in the article above. Many current professors have told me that the bureaucracy is impenetrable, who describe committees everywhere that remove individual accountability (they joke about the definition: at least six legs and no brain) and an explosion in VP positions and useless departments. Even trivial things like photocopying your own class notes now require special multi-part forms.

    The empire needs to be reigned in.