Through the 1990s, post-secondary institutions tightened their belts in response to a government agenda of fiscal restraint. One of the ways they managed to make ends meet was by deferring maintenance costs. Deferred maintenance, however, has turned some campuses into health and safety risks, and has made many others uncomfortable and inaccessible for the physically challenged. The Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO) estimates that Canada’s universities need $3.6 billion worth of infrastructure repairs.
The Senate released a report on the topic on Nov. 14. In it, they identify the causes of deferred maintenance, including decreased funding, the aging physical plants of many Canadian universities, the need for new space and the relatively low profile of infrastructure renewal projects.
The report also includes several proposed solutions for deferred maintenance. Amongst the proposals was one from the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). CASA proposes a “two-pronged” approach to bringing maintenance that has been deferred up to par. To solve the immediate issue, CASA wants the federal government to set aside $1.2 billion for the most urgently needed infrastructure renewal projects. To prevent the problem from reoccurring, CASA wants the federal government to establish a funding accord with the provinces that would set aside $1 billion for post-secondary education.
“We need a pan-Canadian agreement on post-secondary funding,” says Mark Baseggio, Brock University Students Union (BUSU) vice-president university affairs and Ontario regional director for CASA. “[It would be] an agreement like the Canada Health Act, setting standards for funding, including things like how much infrastructure money is going to come from the federal government, how much from the provinces. Right now there are huge differences [in funding] across the country.”
Baseggio says that Brock does not have deferred maintenance problems on the scale of other schools, such as the University of Saskatchewan, where a building was condemned shortly before final exams, but that there are maintenance issues within the school, particularly in areas of accessibility.
He attributes the mushrooming of new university buildings, even as old ones crumble, to new building projects having a higher profile than renovations.
“Governments look at what sort of publicity they’re going to get … when the Ontario government goes on a SuperBuild campaign, they’re in the media all the time. They’re giving schools $30 or $40 million and they get their logo all over the place. In that sense, they get a better return on their money,” said Baseggio. “It’s a lot sexier to put up new buildings than to patch up existing ones.”
Baseggio does admit, however, that the building boom is also a result of necessity, saying “There’s a huge need … for more classroom space.”
Baseggio sees the inclusion of CASA’s recommendations in the senate report as a major victory for both CASA and the students the organization represents.
“It shows us how seriously they [the government] take us and how much weight we have. They’re not just patting us on the head, saying ‘good job’ and sending us away,” says Baseggio.
Baseggio sees the issue of deferred maintenance as an ideal test of the Liberal government’s commitment to education. “If the Liberals are sincere with their ‘innovation agenda,’ they’re going to have to address the post-secondary system, and this would be one of the best ways to do it.”