High price to pay for budget shortfall – Staff members at Malaspina University-College have been told significant layoffs are inevitable. [Photo: Communications and Public Relations/Malaspina University-College]
Spring’s arrival is warming temperatures, but four recent provincial budgets have left many students, teachers and post-secondary institutions out in the cold.
Reaction to the New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia budgets as they relate to post-secondary education issues has ranged from muted praise mixed with cautious skepticism, to vocal outrage.
The shockwave is only just sinking in after permanent cuts of 2.6 per cent to post-secondary institutional operating grants were ushered in a month after the B.C. government’s Feb.19 budget bill, which was vague on funding.
“We are incredibly disappointed to learn, less than two weeks before the start of the new fiscal year, that we will not be getting all the money government said we would,” said Chris Petter, president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia.
Government officials began meeting with representatives from the post-secondary sector in March to announce the cuts.
The province’s post-secondary institutions make budget decisions based on rolling three-year funding levels outlined by the government. The upcoming fiscal year was based on the government’s spring 2007 plan which should have taken B.C. institutions through to 2009-2010.
“It’s completely unconscionable,” said CUFA BC executive director Robert Clift. “It’s not only incompetent management, but the confusion and chaos it’s causing are boggling, not to mention that we can’t get a satisfactory explanation.”
Clift warns the funding shortfall will impact each institution differently, ranging from damaging across-the-board cuts, vertical cuts and restructuring, to hiring freezes.
The government limits tuition fee increases to about the rate of inflation, but Petter said “one way or another, students will feel the negative effects,” of the budget reduction.
Within days of the meetings, several B.C. institutions had already announced their decisions on dealing with the shortfall.
The College of New Caledonia announced a reduction in faculty.
The three campus unions at Malaspina University College, who represent almost 1,000 employees, were told March 27 that the institution is facing a budget crisis and significant layoffs are inevitable.
And proposed cuts to programs have surprised and shocked faculty and students at Vancouver Community College. The cuts would eliminate 7 per cent of VCC faculty and cut classes for more than 1,000 students each year.
“The B.C. Liberals’ approach to post-secondary education has always been suspect, but these cuts simply confirm they have no plan and don’t know where they’re going,” said Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-secondary Educators of BC. “We are losing programs and access across the entire public post-secondary system.”
Oliver said students already face enough barriers to post-secondary education, adding she expects the cuts will worsen the situation.
A mixed bag containing a continuing tuition freeze at the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina and increases in direct funding to post-secondary institutions are all good, say the universities’ academic staff unions, but added they remain cautious with last month’s provincial budget.
Dorothy Lane, chair of the University of Regina Faculty Association, said while there were several notable post-secondary education-related proposals in the province’s March 19 budget, the increased government funding is largely directed to new health-related training seats and the U of R school of public policy.
“It’s of concern that the government is increasing support to this school ‘to train brilliant minds for brilliant futures in the civil service,’ as this statement suggests potential political involvement in post-secondary programs,” she said, adding the plan is hardly good news for the liberal arts core of Saskatchewan’s universities.
Lane said the funding proposals announced in the budget in general support capital and infrastructure investments, overshadowing the importance of retaining faculty and staff and programming.
“We also have great concerns about the current labour relations climate in this province and its impact on the collegial environment of the university,” she added.
“A smarter Ontario” through “excellence in publicly-funded education” is the purported goal of Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s March 25 budget, which made a $1.5 billion, three-year skills training program its cornerstone.
But while the targeted funding announcement may have pleased some colleges, the budget offering was roundly criticized by university faculty and students.
About 550,000 full-time college and university students will take advantage of $385 million in textbook and technology grants, over three years. But student critics labeled the gesture “tokenistic,” pointing to mounting student debt and rising tuition fees as more urgent areas for funding.
Brian Brown, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, said the budget’s money for infrastructure isn’t enough and that Ontario remains last in the per capita university funding league, while maintaining the worst student-faculty ratio at 26 to one.
“The only way to reduce class sizes and improve student-faculty ratios is to hire more faculty now,” he said.
Brown said by 2009-2010 undergraduate enrolment is expected to be at 92,000 — double the 2003 level — and that 5,500 new faculty members will have to be hired to deal with the growth, a premise the government didn’t address in the budget.
Amid accolades for the 2008-2009 tuition freeze at the province’s four universities announced in New Brunswick’s March 18 budget, came a cautionary note: the freeze is for one year only.
“We do applaud the tuition freeze,” said Gary Long, president of the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations. “But it’s a year. And while the budget delivers a 6 per cent increase in funding to universities, the tuition freeze will eat away at that, because tuition usually goes up.”
Long said the province should eliminate tuition fees for university-bound students, with government paying the way.
If “New Brunswick is the province with the lowest percentage of people who have completed at least some post-secondary education in all of Canada,” as highlighted in the budget speech, Long says he doubts a 6 per cent hike in funding will significantly increase accessibility.