Back in early December, the Ottawa Citizen reported on a controversy at the University of Ottawa. Basically, the story was that the University is facing a $20 million budget shortfall, the administration is consulting re: how to cut its budget and some people are very upset with some of the proposed solutions.
Of course, cutbacks anywhere, anytime, are unacceptable to someone in the institution. The library, for instance, is being asked to contemplate a cut of $2 million). “A source” told the Citizen that such a cut would “decimate its holdings and – horror of horrors – “severely damage its reputation”.
(Regular readers of this column may recall some data on library statistics I published earlier this year. A quick check here suggests that even with these cuts, library expenditures per student at Ottawa would still be ahead of the not-reputationally-challenged-last-I-heard Queen’s, and that University of Ottawa has over the past ten years increased its collections budget by 50%. Even with the proposed cuts, it would still have the largest net increase in funding of any research university library in the country since 2004. It would be surprising, to say the least, if any real reputational damage ensued from this.
How did Ottawa get into this position in the first place? Here’s what a university spox told the Citizen: “The University of Ottawa is one of many Ontario universities facing financial challenges. This is due in part to a permanent reduction in revenues from the provincial government of two per cent (over 2012-2013 levels) in government grants per registered students, resulting in decreased funding … At the same time, the university’s expenditures, especially those related to salaries, benefits, and special payments for pension plans continue to grow.”
OK, so let’s parse this. Government has actually increased funding since 2012-13, not decreased. Not by much, admittedly, but it has increased. And the funding formula hasn’t changed. So if “dollars per student” are down, it’s because a) the University is admitting more students outside the formula (i.e. international students), or b) it’s new enrolments are disproportionately enrolled in “cheap” subjects like Arts and business, rather than expensive ones like medicine – and that’s bringing down the ratio of “basic income units” (Ontario government jargon for “weighted student units” in an enrolment-driven funding formula) to actual students. The third option is that c) other universities have chosen to grow faster than University of Ottawa, thus dropping its share of system-wide BIUs slightly. I have no idea which of these is true – I’m fairly confident both “a” and “b” are true but am not sure about “c”, but in any case those are institutional policy decisions, not government ones. Blaming the government for them isn’t really kosher.
The government could of course, be blamed for not putting more money in the system as a whole. But look – this province had a $17 billion deficit no so long ago. The 2010 provincial budget was crystal clear that between 2010 and 2016, total program funding was only going to increase by $5 billion (about 4.4%). In fact, universities as a whole did better than this: they got an increase of about 6% in nominal terms (yes, still a decrease in real terms but actually better than anticipated). The University of Ottawa got an increase of about 5% in that period.
Would life be easier if government wrote bigger checks? Sure. But everyone has had plenty of warning that government assistance wasn’t going to be increasing very much. The real question is: given that everyone knew this, why were university expenditures allowed to grow so much?
Well, let’s go back to the summer of 2013, when the university was negotiating a new contract with the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO). Remember, at this point, everyone had known for more than three years that government wasn’t coming through with new money anytime soon. And yet the institution conceded this astonishing deal. The APUO’s summary of the deal is here, but the two key bits were:
- A guaranteed increase in academic/librarian staff complement of 4% (from 1250 to 1311).
- An increase in pay of 11.5% on top of PTR over four years (but really three since the deal was backdated to 2012).
The result: between 2010 and 2016, the period in which government said “sorry guys, no more money”, aggregate expenditures on academic staff salaries – the biggest single line-item in the institution’s budget – increased by 29.4%.
Did I mention that the Faculty Union responsible for this $50 million rise in costs has launched a grievance re: the cuts? No? Well, now you know.
Of course, that’s not the only reason the university is in trouble. While U of O made valiant efforts to increase its revenues in other ways (revenue from investments increased, and revenue from fees rose almost 45%, thanks in part to higher fees but equally if not more to increased international student enrolment), it wasn’t exactly doing much to curb expenditures in non-salary items either. Sure, academic staff wages were increasing at close to 5% per year throughout this period, but other operating costs were rising at a little over 4%. Bluntly: strong cost controls are not in place. There’s blame to go around here.
It may seem like I am picking on the University of Ottawa, but trust me: I could tell a story like this about virtually any university in the country. Governments are not ponying up for higher education the way they used to. Student fees – international student fees especially – have made up some but not all of the gap. Faculty unions are demanding pay increases in excess of institutional income growth and by and large they are getting them. And cost controls in other areas of spending are little more effective.
Something has to give.