Back to school at 82

Octogenarian fights for return of free tuition for seniors

Barb Sweet
Published on February 24, 2011

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.