The Laurier budget needs a reality check

The administration’s rationale for increasing class sizes and cutting contract academic staff (CAS) needs to be questioned.

The administration’s presentation to The Cord a few weeks ago suggested that students should consider themselves lucky that class sizes have only increased by 13.5 per cent, since the teaching workload norm for faculty decreased from five courses to four – a drop of 20 per cent.

Why didn’t the administration point out that the new collective agreement normalized what was already a de facto situation for a majority of faculty prior to 2008?

That is, many faculty were already receiving course releases for large classes; teaching labs or tutorials in addition to large lectures; research and/or publishing commitments; external research grants and administrative and other additional duties.

Plus, there are still exceptions to the four-course teaching load: some full-time faculty, including all limited-term appointments, will teach five (and even six) courses. Thus, you can see that this would not have been a drop of 20 per cent. Indeed, the administration’s new math wouldn’t be so confusing if class sizes had always remained the same.

But, this is not the case.

When I started in the department of communications in 2001, first-year classes were capped at 100 students.

The next year, it increased to 125 students: a 25 per cent increase. By 2004-05, first-year classes hit 250 and shortly afterwards increased to 300.

Tuition fees are helping to pay for
more senior bureaucrats (and their
support teams) rather than in more
faculty and support staff.

That’s a 200 per cent increase over six years.

And it’s not just our first year classes that have increased year-to-year. About six years ago, we also had to increase class sizes for second-year core courses to 200 students, and it now appears even some of our third-year courses will have to be increased substantially to deal with the administration’s proposed cuts.

Meanwhile, students have been paying more tuition almost every year.

Indeed, at Laurier, tuition fees already account for 42.6 per cent of revenues compared to 34 per cent (on average) for Canada’s top 25 universities, according to a report published in January by Maclean’s.

And, where does it all go? Maclean’s reports that, as of 2008, there was an extra $18 million on average flowing out of teaching and into central administration at the top 25 universities; this trend represents an increase of 67 per cent over 20 years.

Increasingly, tuition fees are helping to pay for more senior bureaucrats (and their support teams) rather than in more faculty and support staff.

There is an assumption that increasing class sizes is also a result of faculty salaries, but Laurier ranks 15 out of 18 Ontario universities (CAUT figures for 2007-08).

And nationally, Laurier ranks 26th, well below the national average.

The cost of all salaries (not just faculty’s) appears to be decreasing as a proportion of the budget: from 50.1 per cent in 2007 to 48.5 per cent in 2008, according to the WLU financial statements released in April 2009.
The administration also failed to mention that the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) had agreed to increase the percentage of courses taught by CAS to cover the shift to a four-course load.

Now, the administration is proposing to cut CAS by 1.5 per cent for next year, even though they represent only five per cent of the budget and teach 35 per cent of courses: a bargain by any reckoning. Cuts can only really be applied against the CAS budget in academic units because they are hired on a per-course contract basis (unlike full-time faculty).

Therefore, the seemingly insignificant figure of a 1.5 per cent cut for academic units will have a significant impact indeed.

If the entire 1.5 per cent cut has to come out of the five per cent allotted for CAS, then it will translate into a 30 per cent cut to all CAS-taught courses.

Since CAS teach 35 per cent of all courses, this equals a 10.5 per cent cut to all courses.
Applying these cuts to academic units, which rely disproportionately on CAS, such as communications, constitutes a severe contraction: less course selection and greater class sizes.

If CAS teach 40 per cent of communications courses (as they often do), then our 1,100 communications majors can expect a 12 per cent cut in courses and even larger classes next year.

Now consider the impact of the 5.9 per cent cuts proposed for the following academic year.

Like many of my colleagues, I believe that these cuts are neither necessary nor warranted to the degree that they are being proposed, but reflect an administration that understands little about the classroom and even less about its connection to faculty research, as exemplified by the vice-president of finance’s claim that research is “a strain on [faculty’s] teaching ability.”

These cuts threaten Laurier’s reputation for quality academic programs that faculty and staff have worked hard to provide to generations of students.

Dr. Herbert Pimlott is an associate professor of communication studies who has taught in higher education for 17 years in the U.K. and Canada.
He is writing in a personal capacity.