Back to school at 82

Barb Sweet
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Octogenarian fights for return of free tuition for seniors

Sitting in the front row of a Memorial University geography class, Herb Burton is surrounded by students young enough to be his great-grandchildren.

And he’s more than twice as old as Prof. Josh Lepawsky.

Dressed in casual clothes set off by a multicoloured winter scarf, the 82-year-old is calculating long-itude and latitude in his blue Note Tote binder, pitching in answers and listening intently to Lepawsky’s instructions about an upcoming exam.

Slight, white-haired Burton is among a class of  roughly 70 students, mostly in their late teens and early 20s.

And while they are taking the course for credit, Burton is only auditing it, meaning it won’t count towards a degree.

But he wants to change all that and has been lobbying the Department of Education and MUN to bring back free tuition for seniors.

“I want this by September so I can become a student,” Burton said following his geography class.

“C’mon guys, it’s not going to cost you a bloody cent. How many seniors are going to come in here and take higher education?”

Burton, who took some marketing courses years ago while employed with Brookfield Dairy, wants to get a bachelor of arts degree, and argues many retirees can’t do that because of the financial burden.

MUN dropped free tuition for seniors in 1996 because of fiscal restraint, said spokesman Ivan Muzychka.

“Memorial’s tuition is already very low, and while the issue comes up occasionally, the university is not considering reinstating the waiver,” he told The Telegram.

Burton said the classes — he’s already audited several, including English, philosophy and sociology — keep his mind fresh and helps him stave off dementia-type diseases. 

In 2007, Science Daily and other media reported the University of California-Irvine’s discovery that learning appears to slow the development of two brain lesions that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that the elderly, by keeping their minds active, can help delay the onset of the degenerative disease.

“If I give up, the government is going to be paying $5,000 a day to look after me for dementia,” said Burton, who finished his working life in chaplaincy at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick.

Burton’s geography classmate, George Jordan, 20, from Nanton, Alta., understands why it’s important for older people to continue learning.

His grandfather has Alzheimer’s and his grandmother continues to take classes to keep her brain focused.

“I would totally go back to school,” says Jordan of the many decades to come before he reaches his senior years.

Jordan likes having Burton in class, as well as a middle-age woman who takes the course, as well, because they ask questions that are more mature and intriguing.

They’re also not shy or embarrassed to ask questions in front of their classmates.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question, but they have the experience a little more to speak out,” said the third-year geology major.

Lepawsky said older students like Burton make the classes better.

“It's potentially a much richer source for discussion,” he said.

“A lot of the events that we are talking about in the geography class —  because it tends to be very current-event oriented  — current events have histories. But the older folks in the class lived through them as opposed to just reading about them in a textbook.”

That’s something Garry Dart, 19, appreciates.

“They have been in the workforce and they bring different information the class wouldn’t otherwise have,” Dart said.

At 38, Lepawsky admits to sometimes being a bit nervous around much older students.

“What do I really know? I’ve only read about these things, too,” he laughs, when talking about their first-hand knowledge.

Lepawsky said there’s one other awkwardness.

“And the younger students, they are of a generation for whom they don’t know what to call you. Is it Mr., is it Sir, is it Professor, is it Doctor? So you’re trying to make it clear at the beginning. But then if someone older takes the class, and just now Herb was saying ‘Doctor,’ that just feels so funny. To me it just feels weird.”

He agrees there should be a tuition break for seniors.

“It seems like as a public institution there is a responsibility to the community, and people post-retirement have contributed their entire working lives to the tax system which supports public education. It’s hard to imagine it would be some kind of burden on the system,” Lepawsky said.

Dart said free tuition might also encourage more older people to come out and mingle with the younger population at school.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education acknowledges Burton did meet with senior officials and was advised by former minister Darin King that MUN is responsible for admissions and developing any tuition incentives for seniors.

However, the department said it’s following up with MUN on whether there are ways to collaborate to promote seniors' learning.

Organizations: Department of Education, University of California-Irvine

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Nanton

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Recent comments

  • Darryl Costello
    February 25, 2011 - 06:34

    Free tuition for everyone, never mind just seniors!

  • Huck
    February 24, 2011 - 23:01

    While it is admirable that Mr Burton is still interested in getting an education, the fact of the matter is the man is 82 yrs old. He is not going to be re-entering the workforce, nor will he be contributing anything back to the system. I don't wish to offend, but this gentleman has had the past 60+ yrs to make his mark in the world. Although he may be able to out think and perhaps out work some of today's younger generation, he is taking up a seat that should be getting used by someone who has a lifetime of contributions ahead of them. I have no problem with mature students trying to upgrade their skills, but I have to draw the line at seniors taking up classroom space, mainly because they are bored at home. If they are serious about furthering their education, there are many good courses that can be taken online, and as well, the Discovery Channel is a wealth of information. Don't get me wrong; I only have a few more years left in the workforce myself before I will become a senior too. I only hope that by the time I retire I will have fully come to terms with the fact that I will no longer be a mover and a shaker, and that the future belongs to the young people.

  • Sarah
    February 24, 2011 - 22:24

    I think some of the people against free tuition for seniors are forgetting the contribution these people have already made to society. Often they had to leave school early, like my grandmother who had to leave in grade 3 to help with her family. They made it possible for you younger folk to get those higher educations. I wouldn't be where I am now if she hadn't made that sacrifice. If seniors want a free education, it's the least we can do after all they've done for us.

  • Anon
    February 24, 2011 - 21:09

    tuition is only ten percent of mun's total income. It should be abolished completely. At least for Newfoundlanders.

  • Current Tuition Payer
    February 24, 2011 - 18:53

    As a current full-time student who has been paying tuition out of my own pocket for the past 3 years this article has annoyed me to the tenth degree. I see no benifit to spending tax dollars on free tuition for seniors. I have no issues with anyone of any age pursuing higher education, but do so at your own expense. This program was intially cancelled for a reason, financial reasons. Simply because the province is in a promising economic position does not mean freebies and handouts around every corner. Simply stating that not many seniors will use it anyway hardly makes a case for the reinstatement of a government subsidized program, afterall, funded programs are usually instated when there is a NEED, not a small groups desire. Nice story, but I would have enjoyed it better had it not been a person looking for something for nothing.

  • Current Tuition Payer
    February 24, 2011 - 18:48

    As a current full-time student who has been paying tuition out of my own pocket for the past 3 years this article has annoyed me to the tenth degree. I see no benifit to spending tax dollars on free tuition for seniors. I have no issues with anyone of any age pursuing higher education, but do so at your own expense. This program was intially cancelled for a reason, financial reasons. Simply because the province is in a promising economic position does not mean freebies and handouts around every corner. Simply stating that not many seniors will use it anyway hardly makes a case for the reinstatement of a government subsidized program, afterall, funded programs are usually instated when there is a NEED, not a small groups desire. Nice story, but I would have enjoyed it better had it not been a person looking for something for nothing.

  • Go Petition
    February 24, 2011 - 13:40

    Dear Readers: I have personally had the privilege of meeting Mr. Burton and consider him to be an treasure. He has been advocating for free tuition for seniors. But why stop there? Isn't about time that the Newfoundland Education System led the way and provided free education to all persons of Newfoundland origin. May I suggest Mr. Burton start an online petition at Another petition at Memorial University that is generating a lot of buzz can be found at Good Luck Mr. Burton

    • Grace
      February 24, 2011 - 15:53

      go go mr. Burton I am 82 and I would go back to Memorial if I could afford it my year at MUN was 1959-1960 and I would gone back if I could have afforded it, go ahead Mr Burton and start a petition,

  • Herb morrison
    February 24, 2011 - 12:56

    I really admire Mr. Burton for showing such initiative. I returned to Memorial University in 2004, while in my late fifties, and completed a B.A. in 2006, which I originally began in 1970. Then I went on to do post graduate work. There is definitely a case to be made for providing free tuition to seniors, who have the intelligence, ability, and willpower to want to complete a university degree. One of the advantages of being an older student in a class of colleagues, most of whom were younger than my son, was that my life experience enabled me to give my viewpoint on such historical events as the first lunar landing, the Kennedy assassinations, and the Viet Nam War. The fact that I actually lived at the time these events happened, tweaked the interest of my colleagues. In return, I had the privilege to study alongside some very intelligent, articulate, well-educated young people. It was a win-win situation.

  • Anonymous
    February 24, 2011 - 12:34

    Free tuition for seniors? Not a chance. This is nothing but entertainment for these old timers, and they should pay just like everybody else. Especially considering that many of them are likely paying next to nothing in living expenses. I'm not a fan of free tuition for anyone considering that universities are already heavily subsidized, however if we were going to go that way it should be an investment in our youth, many of whom are facing years of financial hardship while attending school, not to mention having to pay back their student loans once they've finished. We should not be subsidizing the entertainment of seniors who are retired and in many cases free of debt. They are never going to do anything with their degrees. I'm against them taking up seats in classes that could be filled by ambitious young people who are just starting out their lives, but if they're going to insist on doing so they should certainly be paying for it. I've got a much better idea, just give them a library card for the QEII.

    • Donna
      February 24, 2011 - 19:24

      Note to Anonymous: What planet are you living on to suggest that senior citizens "are paying next to nothing in living expenses"? How do you think they survive? They have to pay for food, heat, light, telephone and often rent just like everyone else. They often have to do this on a fixed income that is significantly less than many salaries.

    • MP
      February 24, 2011 - 20:52

      That's not the point- if they're going to do anything with their degrees if you read the article closely. It's not entertainment. Scientific research suggests that occupying the brain helps prevent chronic diseases in the old. If you were however a with the department of health you would encourage free tuition so you wouldn't have to spend 5 grand in health costs on them. Regards to the seats, when and how many classes have you went to when all seats were filled? I would much rather have a senor who is interested in my class then a 20 year old random who attends 10 classes a semester!

  • Jennifer
    February 24, 2011 - 11:20

    I agree with Mr. Burton on allowing seniors to go to university for free. I too went through Memorial University and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce when I was in my twenties. I always said that when I could go back without having to pay I would. There were so many interesting courses that I didn't have the option to take at the time and would love to do when I am older and my kids are raised. I have paid thousands and thousands of dollars for my education - but I have no issue with seniors broadening their knowledge for free (especially if it helps reduce the cases of dementia/Alzheimers).

  • Just Saying
    February 24, 2011 - 10:41

    Great Story. I think seniors should be permitted to attend MUN free!!! They can contribute alot to the younger students. You GO FOR IT Herb you have alot to contribute more power to you.

  • Andrea Gunn
    February 24, 2011 - 10:35

    what a well-written, interesting and insightful story as someone who only recently finished university I can say first hand how enriching it is to have people of ALL backgrounds in classes, and seniors are no different, with years of experience in the workforce and in life in general all the older classmates I had the pleasure of meeting always enhanced my learning experience and with growing rates of dementia in our province, what better way to give back to these people who have given so much throughout their lives? I agree with Herb in that likely there wouldn't be enough interest for it to become any sort of burden on the university there's so many people in our society who view seniors as having nothing further to contribute to society and that is simply so far from the truth and this story proves it so come on MUN! support lifelong higher education! I hope by the time I'm a senior this opportunity will be available to me!

  • bob from cb
    February 24, 2011 - 10:06

    I am against free tuition for seniors!! When I got out of university, I owed over 40 thousand in student loans. I have paid all that back and now I work and pay a great deal of taxes and contribute to society in that manner. Now, the 40 + thousand (plus all the thousands more that I made working part time jobs while in university), was only a fraction of the cost that the government and all taxpayers paid for me to get educated. The government did this so that in turn, I would work in NFLD and contribute back to the provinces GDP. For seniors to take these courses because they are bored, that is one thing if they are willing to pay part of the cost. But to expect the government to pay for them to take courses knowing full well that they will never work and pay back that education investment??? How on earth does Mr. Burton, knowing that he is taking up space that could be used by a younger student that actually has the potential to pay back into the system some day, think that he should have a right to get free tuition while the younger students have to pay?? The government does not put money into education to be some kind of an adult daycare, it is an investment into educating the work force. That is what our tax dollars are for. Mr. Burton’s argument about brain lesions and dementia…reaching a bit don’t you think?? Read a book or play chess, or just continue to audit the classes like you are doing (and only when there is and empty seat) if you are not willing to pay for your costs yourself. You expect the public to pay for you to get a piece of paper that you will never use… If Mr. Burton wants to get a degree, he should at least pay for same fraction of the cost as the younger generation is required to! Everybody’s parents paid taxes in the past. If all the seniors were to suddenly want to take money from the future generations then we would have a bleak future for sure. Hey, maybe then I should tell the government that I want my money back that I paid in for tuition, cause I paid taxes, when I get to be a senior, right?? Of course not!!

  • Leona
    February 24, 2011 - 09:27

    After all the things seniors have done for us I think free education for them should be a given. But you may have to limit how many seniors you have there because you wouldn't want to have more seniors at school than the average paying student either at that could lead to financial problems. But whats the harm in having so many of them there. It could help the govt. with the financial brden of health costs on diseases such as alzheimers that seniors get from doing nothing. Plus it could help the young adults look up to seniors instead of looking down on them. I think its a WIN-WIN situation for both govt. & seniors.

  • Bev Karagianis
    February 24, 2011 - 08:48

    As a former student of Memorial University and now currently University of Toronto, I applaud Mr, Burton's efforts to challenge Memorial to bring back free tuition for senior citizens. As a student who is older than the average student, I can attest to the valuable learning experiences that I receive and also offer others. True, Memorial's tuition is lower than most in Canada. I ask you, please explain the fiscal restraint that caused the waiver to be dropped in 1996. Give us the % of seniors attending Memorial and the data indicating that free tuition for seniors is a burden to Memorial. As a respected university, Memorial should be doing everything to encourage lifelong learning, not putting up roadblocks for those who wish to continue higher education as a lifelong passion. Awaiting a response.

  • Herb Burton
    February 24, 2011 - 07:28

    Thks Barb!!I The article is more than I had hoped for! Maybe you'll be able to do a follow up when seniors become students in September. herb burton

    • Heather Taylor
      February 24, 2011 - 07:52

      It is fantastic that Mr. Burton has the incentive to keep his mind active! MUN should encourage more seniors to attend. Many older people are from the generation when higher education was only available to the rich. Earning a degree as a senior citizen should not be prohibited (once again) because of money.

  • Suzann
    February 24, 2011 - 07:28

    What a great story. A wonderful opportunity for the younger generation to learn from a much older experienced generation. If there is no cost to anyone and there is space in the course, what is the issue. Seems to me that it could only generate great conversation, respect for elders, mentoring at its best.

  • Starr
    February 24, 2011 - 07:08

    That is pretty rotten of the government to cut free tuition to seniors - those who have contributed to our province all their lives. And any costs in providing free tuition would certainly be made up for in the seniors being more healthy and active - mentally and physically. isn't that worth it?