Friday, 5 May 2017

Gerry Byrne vs. MUN

Gerry Byrne vs. MUN

By: Ryan Young

The ongoing feud between MUN administration and Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour Minister, Gerry Byrne, has continued to escalate over the past few weeks and it has many scratching their heads to why the minister is engaging in such a public battle with the university brass.

While MUN considers raising fees and tuition for students, Byrne has been critical of spending practices and what he calls a “culture of entitlement.” The governments position is that they would like to see the tuition freeze for NL students continue, and that the university can find efficiencies to offset cuts to their operating budget. The university says it has been cut to the bone and that the only way they can maintain the current level of service is to raise revenues. Caught in the middle of this heated debate are the students who are worried about paying more for their education.

At a town hall in St. John’s last week, a panel from the university painted a very bleak picture of the current state of the universities finances. One of the major issues was the state of the crumbling infrastructure on campus. The university is in big need of an upgrade but the money simply isn’t there. it would take $22.5 million a year for the next 15 years just to maintain the current infrastructure rating of 28.5% which is well below the MUN target of 12% which would bring it up to fair condition under the Facilities Condition Index guidelines. To reach the 12% goal would require an annual investment of $45 million for the next 15 years.

When the government cut MUN’s budget last year the university was able to offset the loss thanks to a $4 million provincial grant to preserve the tuition freeze, as well as additional savings through attrition and administrative cuts.  In Budget 2017 the government trimmed an other $3 million from MUN’s operating grant, bringing it down from $318 to $315 million annually. Byrne says he believes that MUN can absorb the cuts without raising tuition or compromising services to students, but the university maintains that it cannot reduce costs any further and will need to find new revenues to maintain the current level of service.

The discussion around revenues has centered around a 16.3% tuition increase for all undergraduate and graduate students as well as a new $450 campus improvement fee and a student services fee of $50 per semester. The university is also considering a differential tuition structure that would see graduate tuition rates vary by program and based on what the market can sustain. Many students believe that these increases will negatively impact their quality of life and education and they are hoping for the government to intervene and demand that the tuition freeze be preserved.

The latest spat between Byrne and MUN has been over discretionary spending. On Twitter this week, Byrne cited a $700 recruitment dinner as evidence of a culture of entitlement and suggested that before demanding more money from taxpayers and students, the university should reduce discretionary spending and disclose expenses. During an interview on the St. John’s Morning Show, host Anthony Germain did the math out to about $80 a head for the $700 dinner and asked Byrne if he had ever had an $80 dinner at the taxpayer’s expense during his 20-year career in politics. Byrne dodged the question, but went on to suggest that it would be acceptable to spend that kind of money on lavish visits to the university by heads of state, but not for the purposes of university business, such as attracting the right people to come and work at MUN.

I don’t disagree with Gerry Byrne that MUN can and needs to do a better job of managing its administrative and discretionary spending, but I do question if having this battle in the public eye is the best way to achieve the changes that are needed. During the interview with Anthony Germain, Byrne framed the situation as nothing more than a debate and suggested that to “ratchet down” the escalating tensions , the university needs to consider reducing expenses before it looks at raising revenues from students and that officials should go on Germain’s show to tell the public what he as minister has done wrong. I would suggest to the minister that a better way to address the issues at MUN would be to sit down with the university and work out a solution instead out berating them on social media and publicly challenging them during a morning talk show.

It is very clear that MUN is facing some significant challenges right now and unfortunately those issues are being undermined by a clash of personalities between the minister and those in charge of running the university. Caught in the crossfire are the students who don’t want to see their fees increased and are looking for some real leadership from the university and the government. Student’s want better facilities and services without having to pay more and they need their leaders to find a way to work together to find solutions that work in the best interests of everyone.

Maybe a more reasonable option would be for the minister to order an independent review of MUN’s finances and administration to get a clear picture of where bloat may exist and where real efficiencies can be found. That way, neither him nor the university would be able to point the finger of blame. It would be written in black an white in a report, with clear recommendations on how MUN should move forward. In this way, we could move past the political banter and create a strong foundation for MUN to not only remain a great university, but for it to improve and expand to become an even better destination for higher learning in the future.

We can no longer afford for such important matters to be dominated by personalities and distractions. Students don’t want to pay more to accommodate $700 recruitment dinners while they struggle to meet their most basic needs. They also don’t want their futures to be caught up in the middle of a spat between the university and the government, when the outcome could have a dramatic impact on their futures. Change is needed at MUN, but it needs to be change based on cooperation and communication and the best interest of students, and not to satisfy the egos of administration or members of government. The real way forward requires real leadership and unfortunately that seems to be in short supply. It’s time to put personalities aside and do what needs to be done in the best interests of our students and our province.

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