Growing pension deficit remains hot topic for Laurier’s budget

Wilfrid Laurier University’s senate meeting on Wednesday evening presented changes for the upcoming school year that may bode well for students, yet simultaneously, ongoing financial difficulties continue to put a strain on the overall function of the institution.

A recommendation brought from the Vice President Academic’s Council (VPAC) and presented by university registrar Ray Darling will hopefully eliminate the need for Sunday exams in the fall semester.

In the fall of 2010, Darling said that Sunday exams were implemented because of the increase in students, the lack of space to house all the exams and the time it takes to administer one set of exams.

The key part of the proposal, which passed, was to reduce the maximum time for exams from three hours to two and a half.

“There was no policy, it was just by practice that we had three-hour exams,” said Darling. “Because of that we were unable to slot four exams a day … There wouldn’t be time for comings and goings between exams.”

“It couldn’t just be an administrative concern,” added Darling knowing that support was needed from the university’s deans and faculty.

“There wasn’t indication that there was pedagogic value of having three-hour exams,” Darling said was the overall view of faculty members, allowing for the change to be possible. Students can expect their exam time to be no longer than two and half hours starting this fall.

The lengthier discussion for the evening was the presentation of the university’s budget for the upcoming 2011-12 academic year. Laurier’s VP: finance and administration Jim Butler took questions from the senate, noting that there were few because the budget was rather straightforward.

One of the biggest struggles with the budget is the ongoing deficit to the pension plan. The special payments made to the plan will be increasing from $327,000 last year to nearly $6.5 million this coming year, according to Butler.

“If you look at alternative uses for that money if we didn’t have that, we could increase scholarships by 75 per cent, you could hire another 100 faculty, there’s all kinds of things we could be doing with that,” said Butler. “Those are the kinds of the real choices we have. Instead of doing those things, we’re putting it in to the pension plan.”

Another concern is that the $6 million is a reflection of a valuation done in 2009, not 2010. The university is able to base their payment on the previous year thanks to a government relief program it had previously applied into. If Laurier was making payments based on the 2010 valuation, they would be much greater.

“It gives us time to have a discussion and a dialogue with people on campus of what to do,” explained Butler, noting that more long-term solutions need to be found as the deficit continues to grow.

Already slated for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years, budget cuts of 0.8 per cent and 0.6 per cent will be made respectively. These will help alleviate the growing payments to the pension plan; however the areas of the institution it will affect still needs to be determined.

Some certainty that the university now has is that the province has guaranteed to fund increased student enrolment for the next three years.

“Before we were always forced to budget as if we didn’t have full funding, and you were left guessing right through to the end of the year whether or not you came up with the funding for all the students that were in the system,” Butler reflected.

Butler went on to add that Laurier must still be cautious in budgeting for an increase in students because the province only made the guarantee for an increase of 41,000 students in the university sector. Meaning if that number is surpassed, there could be shortfalls in funding.

The budget remains in draft form, awaiting confirmation of the number of incoming students that will be more certain as of June 2 and then needing approval from the board of governors at the end of June.