University of Manitoba's lab equipment woefully out of date

Leaking roofs, cracked foundations, and aged lab equipment held together with tape, plague the University of Manitoba, writes Jo Holness.

Budget cuts and funding clawbacks are hurting institution's competitive edge, argues Jo Holness

Funding cuts are hurting the University of Manitoba, says Jo Holness. (CBC)

One of my dad's favourite expressions when I was growing up was this: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Fitting, since he was a firm believer in lifelong learning.

A man born at the beginning of the Great Depression, he was denied a chance at higher learning due to a little shindig called World War II. Afterwards, he extended his service in the Royal Canadian Navy to 25 years, taking courses of all sorts from meteorology to scuba diving.

At 42, he retired from service and took the first job he could find in order to support his wife and two small children (including yours truly).

He might not have gone to university but he knew that knowledge was power, and he never stopped believing it. Which is why it's difficult for me to work where I do and see the havoc that ignorance is wreaking on my alma mater, the University of Manitoba.

Ignorance in the form of budget cuts and funding clawbacks; measures implemented by those who think funding higher education is a waste of taxpayer money.

I work in the Buller Biological Sciences Building. Built in 1932, it is an architectural beauty whose roof leaks in all but the lightest rainstorms, where pipes burst and ceiling tiles fall and whose foundations have already cracked and been repaired over the course of several years.

My office is across the hall from a series of biology labs. Students are taught using the technology that is available and/or affordable to the university.

Sitting at my desk, I can't help overhearing the instructional films that are shown, sounding just like the ones I listened to in elementary school in the 1970s. Voice-overs of WASP-y older men drone on, crackling and popping louder than a bowl of Rice Krispies at breakfast time.

Every time I hear one of them, I ask myself: is this the best we can offer these students of 2016? Never mind the educational materials. The equipment I've seen here ranges from state of the art to abysmal.

The freezers in this building date back to the 1970s. It is due to the ingenuity and persistence of the refrigeration folks in Physical Plant that they continue to operate, even if only on a wing and a prayer. Imagine having all your experimental specimens and months of work ruined because the freezer you stored them in was just too old and happened to quit one day.

I've worked at the University of Manitoba since September of 2014. I have met many people, the majority of whom are focused on improving life as we know it through what they've learned in the course of their studies.

Since I am an inherently nosy writer who also likes to learn new things, I tend to ask these people what they're doing and what they're trying to achieve. That means everyone, from the professors to the students and everyone in between.

I've heard many stories of how funding cutbacks or freezes have hampered the efficient running and maintenance of this centre of higher learning.

Labs with equipment so old that it's held together with duct tape and hope. One janitor assigned to clean two five-storey buildings. Employees who cycle in and out because there is no stable funding to keep them on staff. Buildings that are falling apart one ceiling tile and door knob and faucet at a time because spending money on infrastructure is seen as an extravagance rather than just the cost of doing business.

Despite this, students, and employees across this campus continue their work, hoping that the wider community will come to see the value of what they're doing. Let's be clear. In my opinion, our universities are not a luxury, and the people who work or study at them are not leeches on society. Far from it. These are the people whose natural intelligence and curiosity have led them to solve problems.

The problems they are looking to solve are very often rooted in daily living. Is it too much to ask that they do it with up to date equipment, facilities and adequate staffing levels? I guarantee you, dear reader, if you think it's too expensive to fund these sorts of institutions, imagine what it will cost us to let them wither and die.

Potentially ground-breaking discoveries are being made here by people you wouldn't even blink at on the bus. Students slogging away in labs, crunching numbers, performing experiments, hoping that the work they're doing right now will lead to a breakthrough further down the road.

I wonder what these analytically-minded souls might discover one afternoon in a random lab. Will it be a way to eradicate the use of pesticides on canola crops? Will it be a clue to the cure for a particular disease? Will it be some incredible innovation that will help to save our environment?

The point will be moot if we don't adequately fund their work. It's the same old conundrum: pay now or pay later.

Jo Holness is a Winnipeg writer.