‘We’ve got some tough sluggin’ ahead’


IMG_1824University must slash millions from 2013-14 budget

Dietrich Neu

The University of Regina’s nightmare scenario is now officially a reality.

The provincial government released the 2013-14 budget Wednesday. Post-secondary institutions will receive a 2.1 per cent funding increase to their operating budgets, equaling $9.2 million, and well short of what they hoped for.

The U of R alone requested an increase of five per cent; the increase it got amounts to millions of dollars less.

The funding shortfall will “significantly impair the University of Regina’s ability to maintain the quality of its programs,” according to the U of R’s operations forecast document.

Saskatchewan ranks seventh amongst provinces and territories in post-secondary spending, relative to its GDP. Wednesday’s announcement means more programs and faculty positions could be cut.

“We have told post-secondary institutions around the province that this is going to be a lean year,” said Don Morgan, minister of advanced education. “Resource revenue is down, so there will naturally be a leveling off. We think that this is an appropriate thing that we are doing.”

U of R president Vianne Timmons expressed measured appreciation for the funding increase while speaking to a cluster of reporters after the announcement. Timmons said the U of R’s share of the $9.2 million amounts to less than two per cent of the total budget.

“An increase of under two per cent means that we have to find ways to save money on our campus,” she said. “Through attrition, we have been reducing our workforce and will continue to do so.”   

The U of R’s 2012-13 budget already accounted for the lack of funding, which was predicted by university administration long before budget day.

Administration eliminated 25 faculty and staff positions in the 2012-13 fiscal year, and cut the university’s budget by $3.4 million.

Further cuts this year will allow the university to balance the books, however most faculty budgets will not cover inflationary costs for supplies and materials. According to the U of R’s operations forecast, staff layoffs will account for some savings, but also results in enrolment reductions, which “compounds the revenue challenge” by reducing the University’s income from tuition.

“What we are going to see is students paying more for less,” said Warren McCall, legislative member of the NDP, and critic of advanced education. “If the quality of the education is diminished, and the ability for students to access it is curtailed, that is a problem.”

The U of R has almost completely exhausted its ability to reduce costs through staff layoffs, and students can expect a higher-than-normal tuition hike next year to make up the difference. For instance, business students can expect an increase of nine per cent. Without a high tuition hike, the university would have to cut over $5 million in 2013-14.

“Student debt is already at an average of $37,000, that is a lot of money,” said Kent Peterson, national representative of CFS Saskatchewan. “[Tuition increases] make education even more inaccessible to folks. It will have detrimental effects, especially on Aboriginal learners.”

The provincial government has told university administration that this level of funding increase will become the norm for years to come; when coupled with the rise of inflation, further budget slashing could be in store for Regina’s only university.   

“It is getting really tough,” Timmons said when asked about the possibility of making additional budget cuts. “We have pretty well cut almost everywhere we can in terms of efficiencies. We are a very lean institution. If this is a trend, we’ve got some tough sluggin’ ahead.”   

The Fallout

Tough times ahead could spell disaster for some programs, and could be a death blow for others.

The U of R’s English department looks to be in particular trouble if further cuts are made. During the University Council meeting that took place several weeks ago, Susan Johnson – an associate prof. of English – noted that last year, the English department received enough money to hire 25 sessional teachers, this year, they were budgeted for only five. In addition, a document sent to administration by English department head, Nicholas Ruddick, outlined that the three per cent cuts they are being asked to make will reduce the number of English 100 courses by 50 per cent. If this happens, English 100 class sizes will balloon to unmanageable sizes.

Other courses have felt the hit as well. Next year the department of psychology will be offering introductory classes with 600 openings for students in a single class, 400 more than previous years.

“We have told post-secondary institutions around the province that this is going to be a lean year.  Resource revenue is down, so there will naturally be a leveling off. We think that this is an appropriate thing that we are doing.” – Don Morgan

“It is worrisome when we start seeing class sizes get that large, that is a problem,” said Mike Young, URSU vice-president of student affairs. “The Students’ Union is always concerned when we see class sizes get that large. For us, we would like to see the stream of finances move away from things that are non-academic and flow back into academics. Because, remember, the academic mission of the university must come first before anything else.”

Debates have raged across campuses at both the U of R and the U of S as to what part of university budgets should be cut.

At the U of R, most of the discussion has centred on administrative costs. According to the university’s own budget data, administrative salaries have increased 70 per cent since 2004 .

Now the U of R spends the same amount of money on administration as academic staff.
In addition, from 2006-2011, only three new academic positions were created while administrative jobs increased by 89.

“My view is that the government is looking at the University and saying ‘you have five per cent tuition increases every year, we are giving you two per cent in [increases] to your operating grant. How it is that you guys can have a shortfall?’” said Young. “I think that the government thinks that the university has to spend its money better.”

This year, student groups such as URSU, Students Against Austerity, and CFS Saskatchewan have campaigned for cuts at the administrative level. The U of R’s president maintains that although administrative costs are high, the University remains below the national average in terms of administrative costs, leading some to believe that the majority of the budget cuts will be to the academic side of the university.

“We are tight right now. This is a very lean institution in terms of administrative costs,” Timmons said. “We are significantly below the national average, so every time this happens, it get tougher and tougher. Our administrative costs are very low.

“I have to credit the faculty for their strategies for cutting costs.”

However, more cuts will need to be made.

Young believes that the funding shortfall is the provincial government’s way of sending a message to university administration.

“I think they want the university to do belt-tightening,” he said. “And I think they want the belt-tightening to come at the administrative level and not the academic level. So far, we have seen the majority of the impact on the academic side of things.”

How the university will makes the appropriate cuts remains to be seen. However, no matter where cuts are made, public backlash will probably occur, in some form or another.

“Everyone seems to be concerned about what the provincial government is going in terms of giving us money,” Young said. “What URSU says is ‘the government is going to give us what the government is going to give us.’ What URSU is really involved in, and what we are looking at, is how the management of this university spends the money that we have.

“If they are going to be hiking our tuition, which we believe they are going to do, it is our view that the administration should be very, very, careful about how they spend that money. And we will be watching how they spend every penny.”

It is not as bad as it could have been

Despite a funding increase of less than two per cent – solidifying a year of hardship for the University of Regina – U of R administrators were in an appreciative mood on budget day.

“It is going to be challenging for us, but I think we are going to have the same problems that the rest of the province is going to have. And we got an increase,” said Timmons with excitement. “What I’m pleased with is that the province, and the Premier, sees post-secondary education as important enough to invest in, and as an economic driver for the province. I hope that continues.”

“I gotta say, I saw what happened to the University of Alberta, getting a decrease of 7 per cent,” said Paul McLellan, chair of the U of R board of governors. “Considering all that, I would say that we were very fortunate.”

The Saskatchewan provincial budget announcement comes just one week after the provincial government of Alberta decided to slash 6.8 per cent – equivalent to $147 million – from post-secondary funding. The massive cut was unexpected, and University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon said she was “surprised and extremely disappointed” at what the Government of Alberta had done.

Although the ultimate effects of post-secondary cuts in Alberta are still unknown – as it appears that no one saw them coming – the U of C has already said that this will result in massive staff cuts across the board. Faculty at the U of R have expressed their own concerns regarding staff layoffs, as faculty salaries make up the largest portion of the university’s budget, and represent the easiest way to cut money from the budget.

Raphael Jacob, a University of Alberta Students’ Union executive, told the Gauntlet in an interview that students were blindsided by the hard cuts imposed by Alberta’s provincial government.

“We cannot speculate how the university will be recouping said costs, but we do know that staff is the single largest budget line that they have, so reduced faculty and staff will result in larger classes and fewer choices of classes,” he said. “It is certainly unfortunate that we are getting such a cut. It was also very shocking because the cut was much worse than we had projected.”

Before she was elected as premier of Alberta in 2012, Alison Redford promised students that she would increase funding to post-secondary education by 2 per cent each year – roughly enough to keep pace with the rate of inflation. Instead, post-secondary got $189 million less.

The situation in Alberta is concerning to members of Saskatchewan’s post-secondary community because of the similar economies both provinces share. Both Alberta and Saskatchewan are heavily reliant on resource income to fuel their economies, and resource revenue is traditionally unstable.

Alberta took a $1.4 billion hit to their resource revenue, primarily due to a lack of market access as a result of stalled development of the provinces pipeline projects. Saskatchewan’s resource revenue is slightly more stable. While almost all of Alberta’s resource revenue is tied into oil, Saskatchewan pulls its cash from oil, potash, and uranium.

With that said, Saskatchewan’s own resource revenue is down this year – to the tune of about $400 million – and in order to balance the books on a provincial level, several sectors are going to be asked to tighten their belts.

“The jury is still out on what the effects of this are going to be [on post-secondary education],” said McCall. “I think that the relative context makes it look pretty good, but I think the reality is that you are going to be seeing programs slashed, tuition go up, and sessionals cut.

“Could it have been worse?” he continued. “I guess so. But this is not going to do much to turn around the difficult situation that our universities find themselves in right now.”

While this year, post-secondary institutions will manage to sneak by on their tight pocketbook, the provincial government has already told the U of R to expect this every year.

“I think that is astonishing,” McCall said. “Post-secondary education has always been one of the great levelers in our society. It is one of the ways to make your economy more innovative and productive, and for families to make a good income. I think for the government to be sending that signal…to what is such a valuable sector of our economy is wrong-headed.”