Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Financial Information of Universities and Colleges

September 06

Canadian University Finance Statistics (2015-16 Edition)

The 2015-16 version of Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey (which, confusingly, doesn’t include community colleges) was released over the summer.  As in previous years I’m going to do a little summary of what it tells us about how income and expenditure has change over one year and five years.  Just so we’re all clear, all figures here are in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) dollars.  And – caveat – comparisons with 2010-11 are a little weird because Quebec universities changed their fiscal year-end that year and only reported 11 months of data, meaning that nationally, reported expenditures for that year are probably about 1.5% lower than they normally would be.  This means that 5-year averages are probably inflated slightly compared to reality.

For starters, let’s look at total income by source, which was $34,385 million.  That’s down nearly 5% from the previous year, though the a little over 75% of the drop is due to a fall in endowment income (apparently everyone got hammered in 2015).  Income from governments fell by a little under 2%, nearly all due to reductions at the provincial level.  Over the past five years, revenue from government is down by a stonking 12.6%.  However, rising fee income mostly compensates for this: it rose by nearly 5% over 2014-15 and 27% over 2010-11.  For the most part, these increases are not coming from domestic student fees, they are coming from increases in international student enrolment.

Figure 1: Change in Total Income by Source, Canadian Universities, 2015-16

What’s really interesting about the total income numbers is how small the government numbers are becoming.  Already as of 2014, the university sector as a whole took in more money from non-governmental sources (fees, donations, sale of goods and services, etc) than it did combined from the federal and provincial governments.  On current trends, income from student fees will surpass provincial government grants to universities in 2020-21, and will pass combined federal and provincial contributions in 2024-2025.  At which point it would be fair to say we will have moved from a public university system to a publicly-assisted university system.

Now, on to the changes in income by Fund, which I show below in Figure 2.  This tells a slightly different story.  Operating income actually kept pace with inflation in 2015-16 and over a five year period actually increased by 8.8%.  Endowment income fell from about $1.5 billion to about 27 million, or a fall of roughly 98%, but this is an erratic income source and like I said last year was a bad year.  Capital expenditures are down substantially, but recall that in the base year of 2010-11 the feds were sacrificing billions to the Construction Industry Gods to keep the recession at bay; in fact, current capital expenditure is close to the 30-year norm.  The interesting piece is that sponsored research income is down 6% over the past five years.

Figure 2: Change in Income by Fund, Canadian Universities, 2015-16

On to expenditures by type.  Total expenditures are roughly unchanged either over one year or five years. If you’re wondering how this is possible when income is down, recall that most of the income drop is in endowment, which has very little impact on year-to-year spending since it’s supposed to all be salted away anyway.   But while total expenditures are unchanged, some fairly big line items continue to rise, over the medium if not the short term.  Academic salaries by 7.5%, salaries to non-academic staff 8.3%, total compensation (including benefits) 8.3% and scholarships – three-quarters of which go to grad students – up by a whopping 16.4% since 2010-11.  Total scholarship expenditures are now just shy of $2 billion, which means institutions are giving back to students over 20 cents of every dollar they collect from students; from domestic students the figure is closer to 30 cents.

Figure 3: Change in Selected Types of Expenditure, Canadian Universities 2015-16


Now you may well ask yourself: wait a minute.  Total expenditures are flat, but salaries and scholarships are rising.  So how does this balance? Well, simple enough: non-salary, non-scholarship expenditures have fallen by 14% in the last five years in constant dollars.  Some of that is just buildings not getting built (no loss, in the eyes of some), but other things are getting squeezed, too; notably, renovations, travel and printing.

Finally, let’s look specifically at what’s going on inside the operating budget (that is, excluding ancillary, capital, research and the like) which accounts for about 60% of the total.  Figure 4 shows that overall, operating expenditures rose by 14.3% over five years.  How is this possible when operating income only rose 8.8% you ask?  Mainly, because universities have been trimming margins: universities were running surpluses five years ago and mostly aren’t any more.


Figure 4: Changes in Operating Budget Expenditures, Canadian Universities, 2015-16

The big expenditure increases are in ICT and student services.  In the case of student services, an awful lot of that increase is scholarships.  In ICT, interestingly, the cost of equipment purchased has actually gone down: the increases are in staff costs, consulting contracts, professional fees and equipment rentals.  Make of that what you will.  The biggest piece of the pie – Instruction and non-sponsored research (meaning basically what it costs to run core academic functions), which takes up about half the operating budget – is up 11.7 % over five years.

So there you go.  Don’t say financial reports aren’t fun.


April 27

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (2)

This is part 2 of a two-parter on how Canadian universities spend their money.  All the stuff about what data I’m using, caveats thereto, etc., are available in yesterday’s post.  If you missed yesterday, go catch up here.

First, two small mea culpas from yesterday.  First, due to a cut/paste error, part of the data on student services that went out yesterday was slightly off, but has now been corrected on the website.  Second, I neglected to mention that the student services figures included money from operating budgets for grants and bursaries, which accounts for some of the wide differences between institutions.  Sorry.

OK, onwards.  Let’s focus first on the two spending categories we didn’t take a look at yesterday; namely, “Administration” (meaning, mostly, central administration) and “External Relations” (meaning mostly government relations and fund raising).  This is shown below in table 1.

Table 1: Per-Student Expenditure, Selected Categories of Non-Academic Activity


A couple of obvious points here:

  • Compared to the spending categories we looked at yesterday, the gaps between 75th and 25th percentile are smaller (in other areas, the gap was usually 2:1; in these categories it is closer to 3:2).  This suggests that on the whole, institutional spending patterns vary less in these central admin functions that they do in areas like libraries and ICT.
  • On the other hand, the institutions at the top and bottom of the range seem to be much more outliers.  At the high-cost end, there are probably two things going on.   First, some tasks are pretty common and have to be done no matter what the size of the university, so small institutions  tend to look expensive on a per-student basis (for example: a $400,000 p.a President at a school with 40,000 students is $10/student; a $200,000 p.a President at a university with 2,000 students is $100/student).  Second, recall that the “central administration” category does vary a bit from school-to-school, and so some of this may be about oddities in reporting.
  • Most of the schools that spend small on “external relations” are part of the UQ system.   Basically, when you’re so close to being 100% government-funded and controlled, you don’t lobby or look for external money, hence your costs go down.

Figure 2 puts together all the data from the different expenditure categories.

Table 2: Per-Student Expenditure, all non-academic categories


Three major points here:

  • The per-student costs at very small universities is really stratospheric.  Universities clearly have some fixed base costs that require large student numbers in order to make them bearable.  From a public policy perspective, that either makes it important to ensure institutions are a minimum size, or that funding formulas provide a base amount for fixed costs in addition to per-student funding.
  • Keeping a rein on non-academic costs matters.  The difference in costs between an institution at the 75th percentile of overall non-academic costs and a 25th percentile institution is $2,950 or pretty close to half a year’s worth of average tuition at a Canadian university.  That’s a lot of money which could be used for other purposes (or cut in order to provide cheaper education, though that wouldn’t be my choice.
  • Actually, it’s even more than that.  If an institution could emulate the spending of the 25th percentile institution in each individual category – that is, a library cost like UQAM’s ($509/student), an ICT cost like Carleton’s ($508/student), physical plant costs like Laval’s ($1,331/student), Student Services costs like Winnipeg’s ($958/student), administration costs like St. Thomas’ ($1,604/student) and external relations’ costs like Manitoba’s ($285/student), you’d have total non-academic costs of just $5,195 – that is, $3,800 less than the 75th percentile institution and $2,200 less than the median one.

But of course, one might protest: does anyone really want to be in the 25th percentile of spending on this stuff?  Don’t great universities spend a lot of money on this stuff?  Isn’t spending more money on things like Libraries and ICTs a sign of quality?

Well, maybe.  To some extent, you get what you pay for.  But welcome to the central paradox of university management: you can’t simultaneously demand prudence and excellence if the only indicator of greatness is how much money you spend.  It’s why outcome metrics matter; and why those who oppose them, in the end, simply promote waste.

April 26

Comparing Per-Student University Expenditures by Category (1)

Just for giggles the other day, I took a look at Canadian university expenditures in 2013-14 using (as usual) the CAUBO/Statscan Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey.  I looked at operating expenditures by category.  Then I normalized them per FTE student.  And I got some very weird results which I thought I would share with y’all.

What I am going to do in this series is show you the results for the main categories of expenditure which are “non-academic”.  I am not going to look at the categories known as “instruction and non-sponsored research” or “non-credit instruction”, because those vary significantly according to the mix of disciplines offered at an institution.  Instead, today I am going to restrict myself just to the categories “Library”, “Computing”, “Physical plant”, and “Student Services”; tomorrow I will  look at the more complicated cases of “Administration” (meaning central administration), and “External Relations” (meaning both government/public affairs and fundraising/alumni relations).

(btw – the data is from 2011-12 because we haven’t updated our PSIS file lately.  The numbers presented here are a bit dated, but the basic picture hasn’t changed.)

The following table shows the key elements of the comparison.  The intriguing thing here is that institutions actually seem to have very different patterns of spending.  In all four categories, the difference in per-student spending between an institution at the 75th percentile is twice what it is at the 25th percentile.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that institutions are using different strategies of non-academic spending to meet their mission – it’s not clear that these spending variations are occurring in a conscious manner – but it is certainly true that institutions are exhibiting quite different patterns of spending.

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So, a variety of thoughts here:

  • The universities with the lowest-spend in Libraries are all small-ish, new-ish (post-1992) institutions; those with the highest spending are more of a mix.
  • Athabasca and RRU near the top of the ICT spending charts is not a surprise; what is a little weird is seeing Université du Québec en Outaouais in top spot.  Also, why is U of T near the bottom?  ICT is one of those fields in the FIUC survey which is prone to bad comparisons (some institutions stick a lot of the salary costs related to ICT in their central admin numbers or occasionally in their faculty expenditures, if staff are based in the faculty – a quirk of the way the data is compiled), so it might be that.  On the other hand, expenditures on ICT might just scale a lot better.
  • The student services numbers are fascinating: 4 of the 5 top-spending institutions are in Nova Scotia; 4 of the 5 lowest-spending institutions (and 7 of the top 10) are in Quebec.
  • The physical plant numbers are the hardest to interpret because in a sense these are in some ways legacies.  NSCAD owns some historic properties with high upkeep and doesn’t have a lot of students and so has high per-student costs.  Kwantlen is a relatively new institution and therefore doesn’t need to spend a lot on upkeep (or heat – institutions in the lower mainland have a big cost advantage because of the climate)

There are a couple of ways to look at these numbers overall.  There’s the competitive-bidding aspect: some will look at these numbers and say “why isn’t our institution spending that much?  Gotta keep up with the Joneses!”  But there’s an efficiency angle, too.  Those institutions spending at the 75th quartile and above – what are they getting for their money that other institutions are not?

Maybe the most interesting case is Libraries.  A lot of big Ontario universities have very low library costs: Guelph $473/student, Waterloo $591, McMaster $688, Ottawa $723, Western $749, all of which are below the national average.  You might think the big difference is in the collections budget – and it’s true those are lower, in part because there is a lot more collections-sharing between institutions in Ontario than is possible in places like Saskatoon or St. John’s, which don’t have nearby neighbours.  But the biggest single cost in Libraries is salaries, which makes up 45-65% of any university library’s budget (higher in Quebec).  The real difference between these institutions is therefore staffing.  So do users notice the difference?  If so, which users and how is the difference felt?

More tomorrow.


April 15

Are Teaching Costs Increasing at Canadian Universities?

On Wednesday, someone took me to task in the comments section of the blog for part of my analysis on the financial situation of higher education, saying:

“The HE sector has hiked tuition up far faster than inflation citing “Increased teaching costs”. They have been unable or unwilling to provide proper costings for this.”

Is this true? Well, it depends how long a time-frame you choose to use. Let’s look at the data.

To look at “teaching costs”, we need to use data from the Statscan/Canadian Association of University Business Offices Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC) survey. FIUC divides salary costs into three categories – “academic ranks” (meaning permanent academic staff), “other instruction and research” (meaning mostly sessionals), and “other salaries and wages” (meaning non-academic staff). Unfortunately, it does not break out “benefits” costs in the same way – these are all lumped together in a single category. It also allows you to divide these up by “function” (admin, student services, libraries, etc.)

For this exercise, I will restrict the analysis to expenditures under “Instruction and non-sponsored research”, and include salaries for both permanent and sessional academics. Within this category, these two groups make up about 80% of all salaries, so I’m going to assign 80% of all benefit dollars as well (this is probably an undercount because academic staff tend to have better benefit packages). Together, I will call these “core teaching costs”. I will then going to divide total expenditures on these three areas by the number of “full-time equivalent students”, which, according to Statscan, = FT students + (PT students/3.5)

Here’s what that looks like, in $2016, back to 1979-1980.

Figure 1: Core teaching Costs per FTE Student, Canada, 1979-80 to 2013-14, in $2016


So: a major decline in per-student core instructional costs from 1979 to about 2003, of about 20%, followed by a decade of increases – mainly on the benefits side – which saw costs rebound by 17% to bring us up to our highest point since 1980. In other words, the story is pretty mediocre if you look at a really long view, but not bad if you take a lend of a decade or so.

Now, to tuition, which is much simpler to track, using the standard Statscan tuition: average undergraduate fees across all programs.

Figure 2: Average Undergraduate Tuition, Canada, 1979-80 to 2013-14, in 2016


That’s a pretty simple story: flat in real dollars through the 80s’, sharp increases in the 1990s and more moderate ones since then (if one were to include subsidies like grants and tax credits, it would be close to flat since 2000, but let’s not complicate the analysis).

Now let’s compare what’s going on here over a 10 and a 35-year horizon. Figure 3 shoes that if you confine the analysis to the last decade or so, tuition and core instructional costs are rising at similar rates.

Figure 3. Tuition vs. Core Instructional Costs, Canada, 2003-4 to 2013-14, 2003-04 = 100


However, if you extend the analysis back to say 1979, you get a completely different picture.

Figure 4. Tuition vs. Core Instructional Costs, Canada, 1979-80 to 2013-14, 1979-80 = 100


Why the difference? Well, mostly because the 1990s were a time of disinvestment, so in part higher tuition fees were replacing government spending, but also because between 1990 and 2005 or so there were some fairly major changes to the way universities spend their money. A lot more money went into IT, student services, scholarships (and, yes, administration), meaning that core instructional costs shrunk as a percentage of total expenditures. So my comments-section interlocutor is certainly right over the long term, less so over the short term.

That said, there is a real question about whether or not those “core teaching costs” are really meaningful over time given the appearance that an increasing portion of staff time is devoted to research rather than teaching. But that’s a debate for another day.