The provincial budget provided unexpected relief for Wilfrid Laurier University as the injection of over $300 million into Ontario’s post-secondary system allowed cuts previously anticipated in all areas of the university to be avoided.
Prior to the announcement in the budget, Laurier would have seen cuts of 1.5 per cent this year and six per cent the following year across all university operations.
These cuts were deemed necessary as major issues emerged with the university’s pension plan and projected government funding came in to question.
“This year, as in previous years, they took us completely by surprise,” said Laurier president Max Blouw of the province’s decision.
“We were planning with all due diligence for those cuts and then completely unexpectedly, the dollars came in.”
Departments had already taken measures in reaction to the cuts, which had been expected for nearly a year.
According to Blouw, areas of the school including the faculty of science had “already been on a path to readjust in the ways they deliver some of their education in anticipation of cuts,” he explained.
“Not needing to make the cuts, what they can now do is achieve some other objectives that they have.”
Along with the increased provincial funding the budget introduced a wage freeze for non-unionized workers, affecting about 20 per cent of Laurier employees.
“Most of our budget is wages and salaries,” explained vice-president of finance Jim Butler.
“So in our original budget we had escalation estimates in there that we had to revise because of the freeze.”
“It’s a significant savings,” Blouw said of the effect of the wage freeze.
“We have the opportunity to pay into the pension or what have you, we can redirect those dollars, and there’s no end of need.”
Despite provincial intervention that has allowed Laurier to balance its budget, the university is by no means nearing complete financial stability.
“There’s a lot of moving parts – we’ve got a severe pension problem that hasn’t gone away,” Butler pointed out, though the situation was not as severe as originally expected.
Butler projects that the situation for Laurier will remain tenuous.
“We’re back to what will happen in 2011-12 because you’re back into an uncertain environment where we don’t know what the funding regime will do,” he said.
“We’re all in a sort of temporary reprieve.”
He expressed that the university’s position now is to make the best of the situation.
“What we’re doing is taking the surpluses and plugging holes for the next couple years.”
“If we ever knew we were going to get full funding, we wouldn’t have to play this kind of game, but you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Blouw shared a perspective of similar cautious optimism.
“With a balanced budget this year, we can actually think about, as we move forward, how we can position our resources relative to the new academic plan,” he said about how Laurier can proceed now finding itself in a less tenuous position.
“This is all a good news situation; if you look at what’s going on at Guelph, McMaster is laying off, huge deficits at Queen’s – everyone around us is in pretty rough shape,” said Butler.
“They’re all forced to make cuts and we’ve managed to come out okay – reasonably okay.”