Nfld. & Labrador

Student union wants to stop Memorial University's new science building

MUN's student union says the time is right to shelve the construction, but the department of science says it's a high priority for the university.

Student union says new space not right for student needs, worries about price tag

An artist's design of the new core science building planned for MUN. Foundations have already been laid for the project. (Memorial University)

The student union at Memorial University says it's time to put construction of the new core science building on its St. John's campus on hold, citing concerns over its price tag and whether the building really serves the needs of students.

"Last we consulted with the architects and the administration, they proposed a ton of lab space for research. Which sounds great, but we didn't see any reservations for classroom space, lecture halls, or student organizing space," says Renata Lang, director of student life with MUNSU.

"So those are huge concerns to us."

Lang said the opportunity to shelve the $325-million project, which began construction in mid-2015, is ripe: while foundations have been laid for the building, bids on the next phase of work came in over budget, and the tender is now being retooled.

Renata Lang questions why the $325 million project is going ahead at a time when the university is cutting programs and hiking fees. (CBC)

"We're saying, take this time now to do a review of what's actually being put into the building, because we have some concerns," she told CBC Radio's On The Go.

Lang added the classrooms in the existing science building are crumbling, and there's a space crunch across campus for student groups and events.

MUNSU says halt construction now; the university says we have to keep going. 11:43

She also questioned the building's price tag in a time of financial austerity following April's provincial budget, which has seen a number of cost-cutting measures affect Memorial University, such as the closing of its Math Learning Centre in the fall.

In total, $100 million of the building's total cost is being paid for by the federal government.

New building 'a high priority'

Despite the economic climate, the university will not put the project on hold, according to Dean of Science Mark Abrahams.

Take this time now to do a review of what's actually being put into the building, because we have some concerns.- Renata Lang

"This is a very high priority item for the university. So if we wait for the time when everything is going to line up, the building will simply never be built," he said, adding the current science building dates from the early 1960s.

"When that building was designed, we didn't really know what DNA was. So it was designed for a different era, for a different age of science … we've made it known for quite a long time that putting more money into our existing infrastructure is throwing good money after bad."

Mark Abrahams says moving labs and department offices into the new building will free up space elsewhere on campus for extra classrooms. (CBC)

Abrahams said by moving several departments into the new building, space will be freed up for more classrooms elsewhere on campus, and its state-of-the-art laboratory space is badly needed.

"The students are going to benefit hugely from the construction of this building. The undergraduate laboratories will benefit our students across campus, because we teach courses to students in virtually every discipline," said Abrahams.

"Then our senior undergraduate and our graduate students will be working in our research laboratories, so you're going to see students throughout the building, taking advantage of all the facilities."

Possible industry partners

Meanwhile, Lang worried that some of that lab space will be set aside for industry groups and their research.

"The funding of the university is by the taxpayers and the students themselves, so we don't think the priority should be reserving space for external industries," she said, not wanting the priorities of industry to trump those of academic research.

While Abrahams said there may be opportunities for industry partners in the future, that is "yet to be developed" and said any external parties would pay rent for the space used.

He could not allay any concerns from the student union about student fees or tuition being raised to pay for the building, saying that's an issue for the university administration.

Abrahams said the tender for the next phase of the building is currently being reworked to make sure it comes in on budget, and hopes construction will resume in the spring.

With files from On The Go