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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: University of Ottawa

August 30

A Francophone University for Ontario?

On Monday, the Government of Ontario released a proposal for a francophone university in Ontario, saying, effectively, “it’s about time we had one”.  This came as a surprise to many, who wondered “well, what about University of Ottawa, Laurentian University and Glendon College?”

But of course, none of these are truly francophone. Well, U of O is in theory but it was swamped by anglophones long ago and now does a majority of its teaching in English.  Laurentian was from its founding a bilingual university rather than a francophone one, but in practice it has not always lived up to the ideal, much to the irritation of some of its francophone staff.  And Glendon – well, Glendon’s a francophone college, but it’s part of York University, which is about as anglo as it gets.

Where this new institution is supposed to be different is that it will teach only in French,  And it will be governed entirely by francophones.  Which, to the francophone community, makes quite a difference. And with over half a million francophones in the province, it’s not difficult to argue that maybe such an institution exist.   But the question is: will students actually attend?  Whatever the rationale for such an institution, can it compete with Ottawa/Laurentian/Glendon – let alone anglophone institutions?

Well, here’s where it gets tricky.  The recommendation in the report suggests that the new institution be set up in Toronto, which I think strikes many people as odd because the city is not exactly known as a francophone hub.  Supporters of the ideas can turn around and note that over a third of the province’s francophone population lives in Central and southern Ontario.  That said, there aren’t many employers in the region that would put much of a premium on French education, which may limit its attractiveness to students in the area.

Perhaps more to the point: if there were significant demand for French education in the city, you kind of think that either Laurentian or Ottawa would have met it by delivering programs there.  The fact that they haven’t may suggest that predictions of thousands of students flocking to a new institution with no track record may be based more in hope than reality.

(The report itself suggests 1,000 FTE students by 2023-2024 and 2,220 by 2030.  This is pretty much a fantasy, and I suspect it owes at least something to a piece of market research which was conducted on the idea about four years ago which was – and I am not exaggerating here – the actual worst piece of social science I have ever seen.  Among many other data atrocities – bar graphs adding up to over 100%, that kind of thing – it calculated potential attendance at a new university by asking students in francophone high schools in south-central Ontario if they wanted to go to university in French but never probed about alternatives to a new university such as Laurentian, Ottawa and Glendon.   SMH, as the kids say.)

Back in the early 1990s, there was an attempt to provide French-language college-level programming in Toronto, through a new institution called College de Grand Lacs.  It failed through lack of enrolments within about five years, with Collège Boréale eventually coming in to pick up the pieces.  That’s not to say this institution will necessarily suffer the same fate; but it’s not a great precedent and probably more consideration should have been given to it in the report itself.

Now low enrolments aren’t necessarily a barrier to creating and maintaining a minority language institution.  It’s really a question of how much you want to pay and what kind of programs you expect to support.  Could Toronto support something like Nova Scotia’s Université Ste. Anne or Manitoba’s Université St. Boniface?  Almost certainly, though getting up to the latter’s status might take more time than the report suggests (getting students to go to new universities is hard– no one wants to be a guinea pig).  And if that’s the ambition, then it’s probably do-able.

But if the ambition is something more Moncton than Manitoba, then that probably won’t fly.  Like it or not, Laurentian and Ottawa will be competing for these same students: and that’s a lot of fish in a not-terribly large pond.  Bottom line: this is a manageable project if ambitions are small, but the greater the ambition, the riskier this idea becomes.

January 24

Budget Fun at the University of Ottawa

Back in early December, the Ottawa Citizen reported on a controversy at the University of Ottawa.  Basically, the story was that the University is facing a $20 million budget shortfall, the administration is consulting re: how to cut its budget and some people are very upset with some of the proposed solutions.

Of course, cutbacks anywhere, anytime, are unacceptable to someone in the institution.  The library, for instance, is being asked to contemplate a cut of $2 million).  “A source” told the Citizen that such a cut would “decimate its holdings and – horror of horrors – “severely damage its reputation”.

(Regular readers of this column may recall some data on library statistics I published earlier this year.  A quick check here suggests that even with these cuts, library expenditures per student at Ottawa would still be ahead of the not-reputationally-challenged-last-I-heard Queen’s, and that University of Ottawa has over the past ten years increased its collections budget by 50%. Even with the proposed cuts, it would still have the largest net increase in funding of any research university library in the country since 2004.  It would be surprising, to say the least, if any real reputational damage ensued from this.

How did Ottawa get into this position in the first place?  Here’s what a university spox told the Citizen: “The University of Ottawa is one of many Ontario universities facing financial challenges.  This is due in part to a permanent reduction in revenues from the provincial government of two per cent (over 2012-2013 levels) in government grants per registered students, resulting in decreased funding … At the same time, the university’s expenditures, especially those related to salaries, benefits, and special payments for pension plans continue to grow.”

OK, so let’s parse this.  Government has actually increased funding since 2012-13, not decreased.  Not by much, admittedly, but it has increased.  And the funding formula hasn’t changed.  So if “dollars per student” are down, it’s because  a) the University is admitting more students outside the formula (i.e. international students), or b) it’s new enrolments are disproportionately enrolled in “cheap” subjects like Arts and business, rather than expensive ones like medicine –  and that’s bringing down the ratio of “basic income units” (Ontario government jargon for “weighted student units” in an enrolment-driven funding formula) to actual students. The third option is that c) other universities have chosen to grow faster than University of Ottawa, thus dropping its share of system-wide BIUs slightly.  I have no idea which of these is true – I’m fairly confident both “a” and “b” are true but am not sure about “c”, but in any case those are institutional policy decisions, not government ones.  Blaming the government for them isn’t really kosher.

The government could of course, be blamed for not putting more money in the system as a whole.  But look – this province had a $17 billion deficit no so long ago.  The 2010 provincial budget was crystal clear that between 2010 and 2016, total program funding was only going to increase by $5 billion (about 4.4%). In fact, universities as a whole did better than this: they got an increase of about 6% in nominal terms (yes, still a decrease in real terms but actually better than anticipated).  The University of Ottawa  got an increase of about 5% in that period.

Would life be easier if government wrote bigger checks? Sure.  But everyone has had plenty of warning that government assistance wasn’t going to be increasing very much.  The real question is: given that everyone knew this, why were university expenditures allowed to grow so much?

Well, let’s go back to the summer of 2013, when the university was negotiating a new contract with the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO).  Remember, at this point, everyone had known for more than three years that government wasn’t coming through with new money anytime soon.  And yet the institution conceded this astonishing deal.  The APUO’s summary of the deal is here, but the two key bits were:

  • A guaranteed increase in academic/librarian staff complement of 4% (from 1250 to 1311).
  • An increase in pay of 11.5% on top of PTR  over four years (but really three since the deal was backdated to 2012).

The result: between 2010 and 2016, the period in which government said “sorry guys, no more money”, aggregate expenditures on academic staff salaries – the biggest single line-item in the institution’s budget – increased by 29.4%.

Did I mention that the Faculty Union responsible for this $50 million rise in costs has launched a grievance re: the cuts?  No?  Well, now you know.

Of course, that’s not the only reason the university is in trouble.  While U of O made valiant efforts to increase its revenues in other ways (revenue from investments increased, and revenue from fees rose almost 45%, thanks in part to higher fees but equally if not more to increased international student enrolment), it wasn’t exactly doing much to curb expenditures in non-salary items either.  Sure, academic staff wages were increasing at close to 5% per year throughout this period, but other operating costs were rising at a little over 4%.  Bluntly: strong cost controls are not in place.  There’s blame to go around here.

It may seem like I am picking on the University of Ottawa, but trust me: I could tell a story like this about virtually any university in the country.  Governments are not ponying up for higher education the way they used to.  Student fees – international student fees especially – have made up some but not all of the gap.  Faculty unions are demanding pay increases in excess of institutional income growth and by and large they are getting them.  And cost controls in other areas of spending are little more effective.

Something has to give.