Let me say at the outset that I am a believer in our students receiving a good education. That got me to looking at some information passed along to me about the failure in our education system.
Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) has recently developed a “multi-year enrolment plan with overall enrollment targets rooted in academic unit projections,” covering the period 2014-15 to 2020-21 inclusive.
Undergraduate enrolment is projected to remain relatively constant at about 15,400 students while graduate enrolment would increase by about 37 per cent to almost 5,000 students.
Seventy-five per cent of the undergraduate students and 50 per cent of the graduate students would be from this province.
The document appears to be clearly thought out, and the strategic plan fits into the broader university planning environment.
I question the centrepiece of this plan to maintain the undergraduate population and significantly increase the graduate population, as fewer N.L. students will be attending university.
There are fewer than 5,000 students in any grade from K-4, and about 5,500 students in each high school grade, which the plan recognizes.
“Develop or perish” may have something to do with this plan, as well as the fact that the infrastructure and teaching resources are in place to support the current student body, and maybe some more.
However, what is more important is that we improve the quality of our university, especially for its students.
Empire building should not be a consideration. Rather, I submit that it is more important to right-size Memorial as a university primarily for Newfoundland and Labrador students, as it is the taxpayers of the province who fund this institution.
We need diversity, and it is wonderful to see so many international students who contribute to our province. Hopefully, we can retain some of these students, as our demographic profile needs to become younger and better educated.
Enrolment at MUN has not changed much in the last decade but the ratio of N.L. to non-N.L. undergraduate students has seen a shift from a 10-to-1 ratio to a 3-to-1 ratio. So, an essential component of the plan is to increase enrolment for outside N.L.
Before embarking on this mission, I believe it is important to address the deficiency in the quality of students being accepted into MUN. This starts with K-12.
One of MUN’s biggest problems is that the high schools in Newfoundland, with few exceptions, are not graduating students ready for university.
Stated another way, the university is accepting students that should not be accepted without first upgrading their qualifications.
If our high schools were graduating students ready for university the dropout rate would not be 30 per cent after two years. The retention rate at good universities is more than 90 per cent, while MUN is 70 per cent.
Not enough attention is being paid to grade inflation at the high school level. School submitted marks are five to 10 points higher than public exam grades, thus the final grade is higher than warranted.
For example, the average public exam grade in English 3201 is 61 and it is 60 in Biology 3201, both being advanced-level courses.
Granted, these grades include
all students, and not only those accepted by MUN.
That got me to looking into MUN’s academic performance profile report of 2012. More than 60 per cent of students attending MUN had a grade average above 80 per cent in high school, but only about 10 per cent had one above 80 per cent in their first semester at MUN.
That deserves serious attention, as the MUN grading system is not particularly rigorous.
The enrolment plan identifies problems with the quality of student education which require correction.
These include that students declare a major early on, take a full course load and be expected to graduate on time, rather than hanging around for six to seven years to obtain a degree.
The plan aims to improve year-over-year retention, degree productivity and student academic success, all necessary and laudable goals, and it provides recommendations and mechanisms to achieve these objectives. The enrolment plan also envisages a significant reduction in the number of students in certain faculties.
That, too, is probably a good thing. Too many students migrate to what they consider to be easy majors.
For example the 2012 report referred to above indicates that there are four times as many majors in sociology as is physics and six times more English majors than economics majors.
Preparing students for the job market should not be an insignificant consideration. We also, somewhere along the way, need to teach students to be financially literate.
I disagree with the plan to accelerate admissions of students from other provinces, unless the quality of these students improves. N.L. students are poorly prepared for university, but the mainland students are no better and still we are highly subsidizing their education.
Most come here for low tuition while many of our best students study elsewhere because they are offered scholarships.
That is a very poor trade off. I had assumed that the students from other Canadian provinces attending MUN would be very good students.
However, I was rather surprised to see that they are even less equiped for university than Newfoundland and Labrador students. Only 12 per cent of these students had an average grade above 80 per cent and the average grade was 63 per cent in fall 2012.
The conclusion I draw from this is that these students from the Maritimes and elsewhere are here for low tuition, while our best students are studying away on scholarship. Each of these students is subsidized at the rate of about $20,000 per year, while no money can be found for scholarships to retain many of our brightest N.L. students.
One might argue with my estimate of cost, and point out that MUN is not only about teaching. True, but MUN receives a grant of $358 million from the province (and about $425 million in total grants) for about 18,200 full-time equivalent students) and this excludes expenses in the departments of Education and Advanced Education and Skills.
Obviously, this is an area of concern which needs to be addressed by the Government of N.L.
The government of Newfoundland and Labrador recently announced that the student loan program would be converted to a grants program. That can be a costly program that will only have merit if it is tied to achievement.
University tuition here is already, with Quebec, the lowest in the country at about $2,500 per student per year compared to about three times this cost in Nova Scotia. Students are currently an important source of part-time labour for our restaurants and the service industry at large.
How will free money to students impact that industry’s ability to find workers, especially as this industry currently requires foreign workers?
As a final point, let me suggest that the provision of any benefit provided by governments to individual members of society will ultimately lead to abuse and further reliance on the public purse unless it comes with accountability and is coupled to achievement.
Bill Barry writes from Corner Brook