A few weeks ago, Jamie Brownlee (who I believe is a graduate student at Carleton University) published a piece in Academic Matters (available here) in which he developed a two-part notion. First, he argued that universities had become “corporatized”, and second, he believes that governments played a big role in this by de-funding universities through austerity. I will deal with the corporatization argument tomorrow; today, what I want to do is demolish the idea that universities have been subject to austerity in Canada.
Specifically, Brownlee makes the following claim: “By the time the federal Liberal’s thirteen-year reign was over in 2006, Canada’s university system was a shell of its former self. Federal and provincial government funding for university teaching and non-sponsored research fell from more than $17,900 per student in 1980-81 to $9,900 in 2006-07.”
So, let’s start with the choice of describing government expenditure in per-student terms rather than in actual terms. Between 1980-81 and 2006-07, the number of full-time equivalent students enrolled in Canada increased by 92% (headcount numbers increased somewhat less than that because full-time numbers rose, while part-time numbers did not). So even if we take Brownlee’s numbers at face value (more on that below), what he’s saying is that total government investment actually increased over those 26 years. Now, obviously there’s an argument to be had about whether total expenditure or expenditure per-student is the “right” measure. But to not even mention the fact that government expenditure actually increased is plain dishonest.
There’s a second issue here. Massification *always* entails a reduction in per-student expenditure. No system in the world gets bigger by spending the same amount of dollars per student: the point is to take advantage of economies of scale. Exclusively citing per-student investment is quite simply not prima facie evidence of austerity. For instance, between 1975 and 1986, West German spending per-student fell by 26%. Between 1975 and 1983, Dutch spending per-student fell by 30%. And in Denmark, between 1975 and 1983, per-student expenditures fell 23%. Are these all therefore examples of vicious neo-liberal austerity? Or are they, I don’t know, simply what happens when the denominator rises more quickly than the numerator?
Now, on to the specific data points: Brownlee claims “federal and provincial spending for university teaching and non-sponsored research fell from $17,900 per-student to $9,900 per-student”. I can’t replicate this figure. First of all, there is technically no category in CAUBO’s Financial Information of Universities and Colleges for this. You can look at income by source (i.e. federal, provincial) and expenditure by function (i.e. instruction and non-sponsored research), but not both together. So there’s that mystery.
Assuming that what Brownlee means is federal and provincial income for general operating expenditures (i.e. excluding research, capital funds, etc.), my talented data maven Jacqueline Lambert and I can’t come up with numbers that even vaguely replicate his. Using FIUC for the income data and USIS/PSIS for student data, we get the following:
University Operating Income from Government Sources, 1980-81 and 2006-7 (in $2013 constant)
Maybe there’s an honest misunderstanding about data here, but this looks like a fall of 11% or 18%, depending on which set of student numbers one uses, not the 45% decline Brownlee reports. And quite clearly, in terms of total expenditure, we see an increase of 58% in real dollars. Austerity? Please.
And more to the point, nearly all of the decline in per-student spending happened in the first half of the period in question. Canada more or less hit bottom in 1996-97, since which time government expenditure per-student has bounced up and down, but has basically stayed within a relatively narrow band of between $9,800 and $11,200 per-student. Thus, even by Brownlee’s own inaccurate view of what constitutes austerity, one would have to concede that the evidence is pretty thin.
Government Operating $ per FTE, 1981-2013
Tomorrow: thoughts on charges that universities are becoming “corporatized”.