MUN enrolment increases despite ghost town on campus

Classes begin today for the fall semester at Memorial University, and undergraduate learning has gone completely remote.

Only graduate students and researchers are on campus, as undergrads go virtual

Vianne Timmons took over as president of Memorial University last spring. A global pandemic has been a rude welcome, but Timmons says she's excited to see classes go online this fall. (CBC)

Classes begin today for Memorial University students in a brand new chapter for Newfoundland and Labrador's storied school.

While the province's K-12 education system is back in classrooms, Memorial University is kicking it new school with nearly all of its classes going online.

The quality of an online education doesn't seem to have dissuaded anyone. In fact, enrolment for this semester is up by 500 over last semester.

"I'm very pleased by that," said university president Vianne Timmons. "It means that students recognize that even in a pandemic they can access post-secondary education."

That change in enrolment may offset some of the financial hurt, but the university is still projecting an $11-million loss from the start of the pandemic to the end of this academic year.

A large factor is a reduction of international students, something that is causing brutal losses for schools across the country.

There will be some people on campus this semester — some graduate students, researchers and professors using office space. (CBC)

The international students who still chose Memorial for this year are facing challenges related to online learning, such as tuning in to classes in Newfoundland Time when it's well past midnight in their home country.

There are challenges for everyone heading into this term — professors who have to digitalize curriculum perfected through years of tried and true teaching methods, staff who don't have proper home offices, and students who might not even have access to the internet.

Timmons said she spoke with a man in St. Anthony who has three kids attending Memorial University. They'll all have to leave home since internet speeds on the Northern Peninsula are slow.

In many rural pockets of the province, there isn't even cellphone service.

These, and other issues, are top of mind for Timmons.

"The things I worry about are the issues like single mothers with young children home, unable [to find] somewhere to access daycare while trying to work," she said. "That's a big issue. We see that for many people, it's been really challenging working from home."

Small crew on campus

Not everyone will have to do all their work online, however. Campus will be open for graduate students who have to work in labs, for people conducting research and for professors using their offices.

Memorial University's campuses are also looking at opening up study space for students who live in shared spaces and need quiet time to work.

As for criticisms about going online while K-12 students go back to classrooms, Timmons said it's not a valid argument.

"You have 18,000 students doing class changes or walking through the halls or going to the cafeteria. You cannot have the social distancing and the protective measures," she said.

Massive changes to everyday teaching was not something Timmons had in mind when she took the position last spring.

"This is not the job I signed up for," she chuckled.

"It's been very challenging to be a new president, to take a new job, to move across the country to a new province during a pandemic. But I will tell you, people have been gracious and warm and kind, and I have learned so much about Memorial University and how its tentacles touch every part of Newfoundland and Labrador."

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