Universities take the cut

Post-secondary institutions across the country are currently faced with funding challenges and universities are attempting to tailor solutions to deal with their budget problems.

Ken Steele, senior vice-president of education marketing for Academica Group Inc., a Canadian education marketing consultancy, noted that although economic conditions have compounded the financial strain on universities, post-secondary budget challenges are not a new phenomenon.

“Over the last 30 years, there’s been this gradually growing pressure on universities in Canada,” said Steele.

“Government funding generally hasn’t risen very fast, tuition has been practically flat … and fundraising is not really increasing as a percentage either.”

The situation, as Steele describes, is that Canada is “trying to educate more and more students but doing so with less and less per student.”

Ultimately, this translates into increases in class sizes, heavier faculty work loads and extreme pressure to increase efficiencies throughout the university.

Managing less funds
“There are certainly schools that are worse off than Laurier,” said Steele, mentioning University of Calgary and the University of Western Ontario, where layoffs of several hundred people, drastic budget cuts and tuition increases have been announced.

Although increasing class sizes have been a major discussion at Laurier, Steele explained that many other institutions have been using this strategy for so long that they have already exhausted it as an option.

Salaries are a major expenditure, accounting for up to three-quarters of a university budget. According to Steele, “it’s actually people that’s the biggest expense every year, so if you’ve got to cut from your budget, you effectively have to do something to cut your people cost.”

Approaches to reducing salary costs include offering early retirement incentives, instituting mandatory unpaid furlough days, cancelling sabbaticals and announcing a hiring freeze, in which retirees and other faculty leaving the university are not replaced.

Some institutions are also opting to close or merge departments or even entire institutes.

Closing doors
Budget constraints at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University (SFU) have been a contributing factor to the decision to close the university’s Kamloops satellite campus, 350 kilometres away from the main campus in Vancouver.

“We have had a very small campus running on the Kamloops Indian band reserve and it’s been there for just over 20 years,” explained Jon Driver, vice-president of academics at SFU.

The majority of the program offerings focused on Aboriginal language, culture and history and tended to have a high enrolment of Aboriginal students.

The cost of running these programs at such a distance from the main campus was becoming unsustainable for SFU, particularly considering Kamloops’s small class sizes of often only five students or less.

Driver explained that administration is currently working with students to identify options for completing their degrees. “The biggest impact is going to be on Aboriginal students,” said Driver.
SFU does plan to keep their Aboriginal language program in operation, despite the campus’s closure.

Effects on education
Although Steele argues that the biggest factor in the quality and outcome of education is the students themselves, he acknowledged that changes resulting from budget cuts hurt the entire institute. Increasingly, there is pressure on faculty members to balance more students in their classes.

“There have been a lot of trends leading toward reducing faculty opportunities for interaction with their students from more and more reliance on adjunct and part-time faculty instead of full-time tenured research-stream faculty,” said Steele.

Steele also contends that rising tuition fees have a negative effect on post-secondary students. “Not because it takes $50 or $100 out of their pocket,” explained Steele, “but it leaves them much more anxious about their choices.”

Steele feels that even marginal increases make students more sensitive to the fact that school is costing them money; wanting to guarantee a return on their tuition investments, students tend to narrow their educational and career options.

“So if they spend a little more tuition,” said Steele, “they stop considering fields that might have been great avenues for self-exploration or development. Students are more likely to gravitate toward programs where they can see the career outcomes because there’s this tuition price tag attached.”

Cuts made at universities nation wide

$1.7 billion
lost in endowed funding and the stock market crash at the University of Toronto (U of T)

$67 million
cut from U of T’s budget

$12 million
lost in tuition payments at the University of New Brunswick (UNB)

decline in enrolment over a four-year period at UNB

cut from Queen’s University’s budget in the past two years

cut in total from the Queen’s budget over a three-year period