A minor kerfuffle blew up yesterday in Sackville when the coordinator of Mount Allison University’s Women’s and Gender Studies announced that, due to budget cuts, she had been informed that the university would no longer be offering classes in this program, as of next fall. Cue petitions, angry students, a buzzfeed listicle, etc.
What follows here is a little explainer with respect to the economics of this situation:
Mount Allison is a small school. Enrolment last year was 2,369, which was down 8.5% from four years earlier. Not good. Total projected operating revenue for the university this year and net money from the feds, like Canada Research chairs, is a shade over $44 million, of which very slightly under 50% comes from tuition fees, with domestic students paying $746.50/course. A similar amount comes from the provincial government in a lump sum, which is not formula-driven.
The Women’s and Gender Study Program is one of those typical interdisciplinary programs you see at Canadian universities. It does not offer a major, only a minor. In practice, it consists of four courses (one each at the 100, 200, 300, and 400 levels), plus some fourth-year independent study and “special topic courses”, which in practice don’t get taught much. In order to obtain the minor, one must take each of the three lower-year courses, plus at least one of the fourth-year courses, and then another 12 credits from a selection of about forty related courses spread across a dozen or so disciplines (see program description here)
For quite a long time, the program seems to have only had a single dedicated academic staff person, who sadly died late last year. The coordinator role has since passed to a faculty member in the Psychology Department, and all of the teaching responsibilities have passed to an Instructor (i.e. sessional/adjunct) who – if you think RateMyProfessor.com is of any value – gets rave reviews from her students.
Enrolment is reasonably healthy. There appears to be roughly 190 course-enrolments across all four of the courses – or about 19 FTE students. Now, how you turn that student count into revenue is a bit tricky. In a formula-funded system you could just add per-credit tuition, plus per-student grant, and voila! In a block-funded system it’s trickier. One could argue that this money simply doesn’t belong to any particular unit because even if one program disappeared, those students (and that money) would still be in the institution. So, if you only count tuition as revenue, this program earns $145,255; if you choose to count government grant money as being associated with specific enrolments, then you get double that, about $290,510.
Now, I don’t have access to financial expense data at Mount Allison but it’s not hard to do a back-of-the-envelope estimation of program costs. A sessional with a little bit of experience costs $10,000 per course at Mount Allison, give or take $1K (that’s cost to the institution, including payroll taxes, benefits, etc.); so a 4-course program like this would likely cost $40K a year, or so. Coordinators usually also get some course-release, which implies another $10K to hire a sessional to cover this. The program also shares an administrative assistant with two other departments. I have no idea what the actual cost-sharing arrangement is, but let’s say it’s another $10,000, or so. Throw in some other direct costs – phone, mail-outs, maybe a wine-and-cheese once a year, plus a guest speaker flown in – and you get to $70,000, give or take.
But that’s without overhead. Now, how you count overhead on an academic department is a bit tricky. It’s easy enough to simply take all costs like utilities, IT, student services, registrar, physical plant, and admin, and then divide it across all students: according to CAUBO finance statistics, that would give you a number not far off $7,700 per student (or $146,300 total). But on the other hand, there’s also the argument that this is money the university would pay anyways, even if the unit didn’t exist (i.e. the same argument why you shouldn’t count the government block grant money, only in reverse).
For simplicity’s sake then, let’s not count either the government grant or the overhead costs. We’ve got a program that appears to cost $65,000, and brings in $145,255. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that this fantastic situation only works as long as a sessional is the one doing all the teaching. If the teaching is done by an Associate Professor (as indeed it was until quite recently), the economics change completely. The minimum salary this year for associate professors at Mount Allison is $85,568. Add in the costs of benefits, pension, etc., and you’re looking at something in the range of $110,000 at the absolute minimum for compensation. Then throw in any costs associated with hiring replacement faculty for research leave, sabbaticals, etc., and of course admin costs on top of that, and you’re very quickly back to about $130,000. But that’s minimum, assuming the lowest pay rung for an associate professor. With annual pay rises, top-salary associate professors make almost $50,000 per year more than newbies. In other words, it might break-even for a couple of years with a full-time prof, but would be unlikely to do so over the long-term.
Let that sink in for a second: at Mount Allison – and many other universities – it takes more than 19 FTEs (or 190 course enrolments) to support a mid-career Associate Professor. That’s what our combination of faculty salaries and tuition policies have brought us to.
Now, I haven’t spoken to anyone in the Mount Allison administration about this issue: but it seems to me the logic would go something like this:
i) As an institution we’re on seriously thin ice, financially: our per-student operating income is about $5,000 per head below what it is at U15 universities, and about $3,000 per head lower than Acadia;
ii) We cannot sensibly run an entire program with nothing but sessional instructors;
iii) This program will have difficulty breaking-even over the long-run unless it is taught by sessionals;
iv) Maybe we shouldn’t offer this program anymore.
One could of course make the case that Women’s and Gender Studies is so important that it deserves cross-subsidies from elsewhere in the university. And at larger and wealthier universities, this would be the case. But at an institution as small and as cash-strapped as Mount Allison, it’s a tougher argument to make. Most other departments are only just getting by, too.
Unpalatable choice, to be sure. But that’s what running a university is all about these days.