Maintaining a quality education

With class sizes growing, enrolment skyrocketing and cuts to staff and programming across Ontario universities, the question of where money should be spent is constantly at the forefront for post-secondary institutions.

Problems relating to poor government funding and high central administrative costs within universities often play a leading role in this balancing act.

As a result, finding the best way to maintain fiscal responsibility and ensure a quality academic environment can be a struggle. Currently the Ontario government provides less funding to universities per student than any province, according to a report prepared for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

The share of Ontario post-secondary institutions’ operating budgets fronted by government contributions has decreased approximately 28 per cent since 1988 according to the Globe and Mail.

“The funding per student is the lowest in Ontario,” remarked William Salatka, Laurier’s undergraduate business programs director and associate professor of accounting.

“In many ways it’s not the fault of the administration; it’s just the government not having the right priorities. Our government says they have priorities but if you look at the numbers you still see a decline,” he added.

Jim Butler, VP finance and administration, told The Cord that the Ontario government has made efforts to ensure faculty salaries are on par with those in the private sector. However, with regard to decreasing class sizes and directing more money to the classroom, Butler stated these problems would be easier to rectify if the government would “give us the funding for it.”

For some, however, the major question of how to ensure quality comes down to an inflated bureaucracy within universities across Ontario.

“As they’re expanding the number of VPs and associate VPs and top bureaucrats, that’s money that is coming out of the classroom,” said Herbert Pimlott, associate professor of communications at Laurier.

According to Macleans.ca, 20 cents is now spent on central administrative costs across the largest 25 universities per every dollar expended on instruction and non-sponsored research, compared to just 12 cents 20 years ago.

As a result, central administrative costs have usurped $18 million that would have previously gone towards instruction and non-sponsored research.

“Yes, there has been an increase in central administrative costs,” remarked Butler.

He explained that the increase has been largely necessary, noting that since approximately 1988, certain laws have required the creation of new positions, such as the Access for Ontarions with Disabilities Act for which Laurier hired a co-ordinator.

Butler added that changes to employment law, the need for specialists in human resources due to increased staff unionization and other reasons have made the gradual increase in central administrative costs unavoidable.

“I do know that all universities are becoming more top-heavy,” said Salatka.

“When we look at stories all across the province, they’re adding lots of layers of administrators. With that being said, universities are being asked to do more and more so there may be some good reason for that. They certainly don’t share that information readily though,” he added.

“People at the bottom have to do more with less, while people at the top do less with more,” Pimlott remarked.

He explained that the university is over-recruiting new students, which “does not make sense.” Pimlott noted that larger class sizes put strain on professors while decreasing the quality of education for students. He also cited the 5.4 per cent tuition increase over the past year, which paradoxically is spent on a lower quality education.

“You can’t maintain the standards when you have 350 students in a class and you cut their tutorials in half and lower the standards,” stated Pimlott.

“I have yet to see outside of their rhetoric in their actions, something that would assure me and my colleagues that the administration has academic quality at the forefront of their concerns,” he added.

VP academic and provost Deb MacLatchy explained that while there has been an increase in the number of central administrators, specifically the number of vice presidents, associate vice presidents and assistant vice presidents in recent years, this does not come at the cost of a lower quality of education.

“Academic quality is the number one priority of the university,” said MacLatchy. She added that some of the new positions are meant to specifically target and improve the classroom experience at Laurier.

Despite some of the benefits found by increasing central administrative costs, several irresponsible agreements at Ontario universities have garnered controversy in recent months.

Most notable was the case of former McMaster President Peter George who not only raked up questionable expenditures to the tune of approximately $200,000 in 32 months, but also negotiated a contract in which he receives $99,999 each year for 14 years after leaving the university.

While numbers like this can make one wonder where tuition and government funding are being directed, Butler told The Cord that Laurier’s central administrative costs are growing at a similar rate to other costs.

“Central hiring is no different than faculty or any other administrative hiring which is pretty much commensurate with enrolment growth,” said Butler.

“Nobody is a big winner.”

Director of communication and public affairs Kevin Crowley also explained that Laurier’s upper management salaries and benefits are “in the middle of the pack” and have remained reasonable.

Laurier President Max Blouw currently earns $318,270 with $28,987 in taxable benefits. This has increased from $300,000 in 2007 when he signed his five-year contract.

Crowley told The Cord that Blouw and many other administrators took a voluntary wage freeze in 2009, and in 2010 took another wage freeze in accordance with the requests of the Ontario government.

“Senior administrators across the university are well aware of the financial constraints across the system. All universities across Ontario and Canada are facing the same pressures. Leaders at Wilfrid Laurier University are well aware and trying to lead by example,” said Crowley.

However, Pimlott explained that some problems might arise because while students and faculty receive constant evaluation, central administration is not regularly assessed.

“There has to be accountability to the mission of the university,” said Pimlott.

“What perplexes my colleagues and I is that the very institution that is meant to value education and he expertise that is garnered through years of studying seems to be actively pushing to undermine the process,” he continued.

With regards to expansion within the university and the multi-campus model Laurier has adopted, Pimlott stresses that these should not be at odds with the educational purpose of the institution.

“The administration has a choice to make,” he noted. “There is no problem with expansion but not until you’ve pursued the goals of the university.”

Salatka explained that these various competing factors are what make the Ontario post-secondary institution so complicated to manage in a way that maintains fiscal responsibility but also pursues academic excellence.

“To run a university, you have to worry about education, you have to worry about research, you have to worry about funding…. So there’s a lot of competing kinds of things the university is sort of balancing…. If you go too far one way or another it’s going to hurt other areas,” he explained.

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