Back in the fall, the Canadian Alliance of University Teachers (CAUT) published an interesting little guidebook called CAUT’s Guide to Analyzing University & College Financial Statements, written by Cameron and Janet Morrill, two profs at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business. Stripped to its essentials, it purports to be a DIY guide for faculty to help hold their institutions to account over finances.
Nothing wrong with that. Learning how to read financial statements is a good thing. The issue is the subtext (“THEY’RE LYING TO YOU!”) and the curious way in which they treat the matter of internally restricted funds.
In practice, universities have three types of funds. There are unrestricted funds: money which they can do whatever heck they like with. For the most part this is equivalent to the annual operating budget. There are externally restricted funds – money which can only be used in manners specified by outsiders who have provided them money. These include most research budgets and infrastructure money (you can’t take CFI money and blow it on beer and popcorn) as well as – of course – money destined for the school’s endowment.
But then there’s a third and slightly more curious type of money called “internally restricted funds”. These are funds which institutions have set aside themselves for various purposes, usually related to the long-term health of the institution. They don’t show up as a separate category on balance sheets, though a quick read of notes accompanying the financial statements is usually sufficient to work out their size (admittedly not the most exciting pastime).
The CAUT document is implicitly a guide for how to hunt for evidence that administrators are lying about the institution’s health. The document starts off in fact by the authors telling the tale of how gradually they came to understand that their own university’s financial position was not fragile but loaded, thanks to their sophisticated understanding of “interfund transfers” (i.e. the process of putting money into internally restricted funds). Left unsaid: hey, these internally restricted funds could be going to increase professor’s salaries!
Occasionally the document seems to accept the existence of and rationale for internally restricted funds, but the kicker is in the appendices, where they produce a step-by-step guide to working out how much unrestricted cash an institution really has on hand, and use the financial statements of the University of New Brunswick and the University of Ottawa as their case studies. The formula they use is a little complex but basically it comes down to 1) find out how much money they have in “investments” 2) subtract the endowment and externally restricted funds 3) the residual is “unrestricted cash and investments”. Which of course can only be true if you completely ignored internally restricted funds.
According to the Morrills, UNB has about $130 million in “unrestricted cash and investments” – you know, just loose money hanging around – while Ottawa has $331 million. This is preposterous, as even a cursory look at each institution’s financial statements. At Ottawa, for instance, note 19 of the financial statements clearly notes that the university has $297 million in internally restricted funds (ie., almost exactly what the Morrills claim to be “unrestricted cash and investments”) and note 12 of the financial statements lists a number of the uses of these funds, including: a $57 million for capital expenditures (e.g to match an external grant), $30 million to support faculty research activities, $31 million in a sinking fund to retire long-term debt, etc.
At both UNB and Ottawa – and I think it’s safe to assume it’s true at other institutions as well – internally restricted funds also cover money set aside to cover the unfunded costs of benefits programs, and funds for strategic priorities. They also cover (and this is one of Canadian higher education’s dirty little secrets) many millions of dollars which are under the control of individual faculties and departments with respect to which the central administration has barely any understanding let alone control. How did they get these? Simple: many universities allow faculties/departments to roll over any unspent non-salary-related money in their budgets from year-to-year. Over time, these can become formidable war chests. I know of one medium-sized university in western Canada where such funds add up to around $60 million. But is this really “unrestricted cash/investments”? I can’t imagine any university administrator trying to take such funds away from lower units. The words “from my cold dead hands” leap to mind.
So what we have here is a document from CAUT which is encouraging its member locals to label “internally restricted funds” as “unrestricted cash and investments” and hence, presumably, available for distribution to faculty members during collective bargaining talks. And there is a sense in which this is correct: the designation of certain funds and certain priorities are political designations within the university itself. It was a decision by the Board of Governors which restricted these funds and the Board could just as easily have not restricted these funds, or restricted them to some other purpose.
It might be a good idea to have an honest discussion about the size and use of these funds, and the trade-offs they entail. Should professors get more pay at the expense of paying off the institutional debt or covering the unfunded costs of future benefits? Should the institution have a lower tuition increase this year paid for by raiding faculty funds built up over the years for internal priorities? I think those kinds of discussions would be helpful and clarifying.
But that’s not what the Morrills and CAUT are trying to do here. Quite clearly, by claiming that internally restricted funds are in fact “unrestricted cash & investments” what they are trying to do is get more of their members to believe that universities have plenty of money lying around to spend and hence that any holding out at the bargaining table is chicanery rather than prudence.
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a lie, one designed specifically to increase labour strife by increasing distrust in university financial statements. I wonder what CAUT has to gain by publishing it?