The Canadian Association of University Teachers this month launched a major campaign - Our Universities, Our Future
- to raise public awareness about the impact of reduced government funding on Canada's colleges and universities.
"I think most Canadians will be absolutely shocked when they discover the sheer magnitude of the cuts," said CAUT president Bill Graham. "As a share of the economy, federal cash transfers for post-secondary education are now at their lowest levels in more than 30 years."
Statistics compiled by CAUT reveal that since 1992, federal cash transfers, when adjusted for inflation, have declined from $2.9 billion to $1.6 billion -- a walloping 44 per cent. On a constant per capita basis, cash transfers fell from $102 in 1992 to just $54 in 1998. The biggest declines came in 1996 with the introduction of the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) which slashed $7 billion from health, post-secondary education and social services.
"Faculty, students, and their families have borne the brunt of the reductions," added Graham. "Today, there are fewer academic staff, less research support, fewer course offerings, bigger classes, higher tuition fees and more students in debt."
Graham pointed to figures showing that the number of full-time university faculty declined by more than 7 per cent between 1992-93 and 1996-97. Within academic ranks, the largest decline was in the number of assistant professors, down nearly 20 per cent. Over the same period, full-time and part-time student enrolment decreased by just 2 per cent, leading to higher student/faculty ratios.
"The steep cuts to federal transfers have seriously undermined the core functions of teaching and research at our universities and colleges," contends CAUT executive director Jim Turk.
He warned that public funding cuts threaten the integrity and independence of Canada's universities and colleges as administrators increasingly turn to private donors and corporate sponsors who can impose restrictive conditions and, in extreme cases, censor academic research.
"In the past year, we've seen that corporate interests and research ethics can easily conflict," he said, citing the case of Dr. Nancy Olivieri, the University of Toronto clinician who was dismissed when the corporate co-sponsor of her research objected to her findings. Dr. Olivieri was only reinstated after CAUT and the University of Toronto Faculty Association intervened on her behalf.
Turk noted that recent statistics show that as a share of all university operating funds, government funding fell from 74 per cent in 1980 to just 58 per cent in 1997. Meanwhile, private funding doubled over the same period.
"What's troubling about this reliance on private funding is the impact on the type of research conducted," added Graham. "Basic research is a very hard sell in the boardrooms of Canada's biggest corporations."
"The restoration of core public funding is necessary to maintain the quality and autonomy of our universities and colleges and to safeguard academic freedom," argues Turk. "But we also need to scrap the flawed CHST and create a new federal funding mechanism. As a block fund, the CHST does not require the provinces to actually spend the money they receive on post-secondary education."
In place of the CHST, CAUT is proposing that Ottawa create a new targeted Post-Secondary Education Fund. Federal cash transfers should be raised and maintained at 0.5 per cent of GDP -- the same level they were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the current year, this would require an additional investment of about $2.7 billion for a total cash transfer of $4.5 billion.
CAUT is further proposing that the post-secondary education fund be administered by a federal Post-Secondary Education Act that would establish the following national principles:
- Public administration -- post-secondary education to be provided on a not-for-profit basis and public funds to be directed to public universities and colleges.
- Accessibility -- assure that all academically capable students have open and equal access to post-secondary education.
- Comprehensiveness -- post-secondary education is to be a public system that provides students with a full range of educational options.
- Academic freedom -- assure the principles of free and independent academic inquiry and the academic and intellectual autonomy of post-secondary institutions.
Under CAUT's proposal, an independent advisory council on post-secondary education would also be established to report annually on how Ottawa and the provinces are meeting their commitments to the principles of the Act.
"As we enter a new millennium, it's time that governments recognize the need to invest in our future by repairing the damage done to our universities and colleges," said Graham. "With the federal government sitting on a surplus of $10 billion, no one doubts the money is there. We need to make sure the political will is there as well."
As part of its campaign, CAUT is organizing a major conference in October on the influence wielded by private commercial interests over universities and colleges, to be followed in November by a national lobby in Ottawa.