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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2000

The Crumbling of Higher Education

Canadian universities are facing at least $3.6 billion in accumulated deferred maintenance, says a study released in mid-April by the Canadian Association of University Business Officers.

"University facilities have deteriorated to the point where the capability of the physical infrastructure to support the academic mission and the core functions of learning and research is threatened," warn the authors of A Point of No Return: The Urgent Need for Infrastructure Renewal at Canadian Universities.

The survey, which assessed the value of the backlog of facility maintenance and renewal of 51 institutions, also concludes "the anticipated growth in enrolment over the next decade will place further demand on existing physical plants ... and can have a negative impact on teaching and research."

CAUT past president Bill Graham says the report confirms what most academic staff know first hand about the sorry state of the physical infrastructure of Canada's universities. But he also noted that administrators have responded to fiscal restraint not only by reducing capital budgets, but also by cutting human resources and services to students - areas that also deserve immediate attention.

"There is unquestionably an urgent need for governments to invest in repairs for classrooms, laboratories, residences and other buildings," said Graham. "But the problems facing our universities don't end there. In the face of government cuts, universities have deferred maintenance on their physical infrastructure and also depreciated the value of their human resources and services to students."

In a detailed report on university finances released by CAUT earlier this year, it was shown that next to capital expenditures, spending on instruction and non-sponsored research rose slower than any other area of university activities. This erosion of the core functions of universities is explained primarily by the decline in the number of full-time faculty, falling by more than 12 per cent between 1991 and 1998.

The CAUBO survey puts the blame for the current crisis solely on government and calls on Ottawa and the provinces to provide an estimated $1 billion to meet the most urgent infrastructure needs.

But Graham says administrators must share some of the blame. "Although university administrators might have us believe otherwise, declining government funding in the last few years does not alone explain why the capital infrastructure and core functions of the university have been eroded so seriously.

"Primary responsibility lies with governments, but the trends we're seeing now began long before the acute cuts of recent times. Restoring the health of Canada's universities requires more government funding and a commitment by university administrations to spend that money on human resources, services to students and deferred maintenance - areas that have taken the brunt of under funding in university budgets."