For several years now, Canadian universities & colleges have claimed financial shortfalls are demanding cuts & layoffs.
Austerity is increasingly the watch-word at post-secondary institutions across the country. But the facts question many of the cries of poverty. Last year, almost 75 per cent of Canadian universities and colleges posted a budget surplus.
According to data collected by CAUT, only 21 universities or colleges had deficits in 2014–2015, and for seven of those the deficit amounted to two per cent or less of their budget. Memorial University of Newfoundland, for instance, finished the year only $45,320 in the red, or 0.7 per cent over budget.
“We’ve been hearing about crisis and austerity in education for four decades now,” said Alison Hearn, past president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association and information and media studies professor. “We live in a culture of perpetual austerity and the need to cut expenses. It’s the hegemony of neo-liberalism.”
She says universities today are victims of an ideology that sees public institutions as more and more like private corporations that should be focused on short-term objectives. “There’s no talk of ‘citizens’ anymore; we’re all just taxpayers. No politicians or civil servants; it’s ‘technocrats’ now.”
Universities and colleges are under constant pressure to achieve greater “efficiencies” and to meet short-term economic objectives. They’re responding in a variety of ways: by increasing class sizes, offering more courses online, funding research projects with the most commercial potential, cutting the number of tenured professors, hiring more teachers on precarious contracts, and seeking new sources of revenue.
“The financial crisis is part and parcel of the managed, commercialized university,” said University of Saskatchewan English professor Len Findlay.
Earlier this year, Cape Breton University president David Wheeler caught the faculty association off guard when he announced plans for faculty layoffs, because of a “financial exigency.”
“We’ve been racking up budget surpluses for the last 10 years,” said Scott Stewart, the president of Cape Breton University Faculty Association.
In the face of looming job losses, the union hired two professors of accounting from the University of Manitoba to take a closer look at CBU’s books. Their analysis revealed that CBU was ﬁnancially stable.
“The university was trying to paint a dire picture, and we had to find a way to counter the claims,” Stewart said.
In the end, the union and CBU agreed to suspend the layoff provisions in the collective agreement.
“When all they talk about is austerity, even when our finances prove the opposite, people have very little time to worry about collegial governance and academic freedom,” Hearn said.
She says the only way to change the status quo is to take control of the conversation. “We have to do research. We have to organize our members who sit in the senate. And each association should systematically analyze its administration’s budget. We’re told we need internal audits, but who is auditing the auditors?”
When the controversy over salarY double dipping by Western’s president came to light last year, Hearn’s union reviewed the university’s financial statements. It found that between 2009 and 2013 the administration racked up $202 million in surpluses, all the while arguing the need for austerity.
“It was a real eye-opener,” Hearn said. “After years of austerity, we could see right there in black and white what their actual priorities were. We were able to bring the contradiction to light, so that even our members who had expressed doubts had to face the facts.”