If anybody wants to know what Ontario universities are going to look like over the next couple of years, they could do worse than check out what’s going on in Edmonton.
To recap: In its spring budget, the Government of Alberta cut 7% from university operating grants. Since then, Alberta universities have been working out how to deal with this cut. At Athabasca, it’s meant significant layoffs. At Mount Royal it’s meant program closures. At the University of Alberta, so far, there’s been more sound and noise about the size of the cutbacks ($60 million over two years) than details.
The university initially tried to persuade the faculty union to give back some or all of the raises it won for 2013 and 2014 in the last round of collective bargaining. Predictably, this went nowhere, although the faculty union’s rationale (“it doesn’t matter if we refuse because saying yes wouldn’t come close to delivering a comprehensive solution”) had the merit of being amusingly reminiscent of those used by the anti-Kyoto crowd (“it doesn’t matter if we don’t meet Kyoto commitments, because China”). This seemed to take the administration by surprise and out came a buy-out plan which – it is feared – could see many productive mid-career faculty leave (though I’m skeptical – where would they go? Not many universities with salaries comparable to Alberta’s are hiring these days)
Note, though, that the 7% cut in operating grants does NOT mean a 7% cut in the budget. That’s because the University of Alberta only gets 65% of its money from government. When you add in all the new money it is getting from students – mostly international ones – income for 2013-14 is likely going to be almost close to what it was in 2011-12 budget. Yet this is enough to force the university into salary buy-outs, position terminations, the elimination of travel and hosting budgets, etc. And if you think it’s bad being a prof, try being a grad student: in the Arts faculty, 20 percent of TA positions are being cut.
How is it that all these positions and activities could be funded three years ago but can’t be in 2013-14 on exactly the same budget? The answer, unfortunately, is simple: tenure, low productivity and the prioritization of research all cause serious cost inflation such that even the tiniest reduction in university budgets causes absolute chaos.
Here’s the thing: no sane President can go to the public and argue that their institutions are doomed without perpetual budget increases of 3-4%. The ONLY alternative is to make university cost structures less rigid. Any university not focusing on that problem is in deep trouble.