What about the four per cent?

CHRISTOPHER YENDT

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If you have paid any attention to the buzz around Brock lately, you are certainly aware that these happen to be rather trying times. While the world continues to be caught up in the radical tensions that grip us as a collective society, both south of the border and overseas, Brock remains divided and torn about the fiscal environment we find ourselves in.

Gone are the days of expansion opportunity, save for those that come through grants and the generosity of donors, and instead we find ourselves clutched in the tightened embrace of budget shortfalls. For those of you who haven’t been following along, fear not, with the constant ups, downs and roller coaster changes Brock has announced over the last two years, no one would blame you.

First, Brock had a projected surplus in 2012-2013, then with the arrival of a new Vice-President of Finance and Administration this was revised for 2013-2014 to be a deficit of $4.5 million, then the Board of Trustees mandated that this deficit be no greater than $7 million. After much re-evaluation, intense town halls meetings, a divisive program review and dozens of layoffs, this deficit was reported at approximately $3 million, and revised to less than $1 million for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Fairly impressive to move $13.5 million in the space of a year, but was it all too good to be true? Maybe, seeing as recently the university announced that this deficit was projected to be $17.9 million for 2015-2016 academic year. In the wake of this, it was announced that the administration of the university, in consultation with the Finance department, has no other option but to use across the board cuts. The Deans of each faculty have been told they have to reduce their budgets and overall costs by four per cent.

Now you might find yourself asking, ‘So what?’ or ‘Why does this matter to me?’ That is where the issue lies, depending on the way that this is enacted, it can potentially have a tremendous impact on the quality of education at Brock University. ‘But it’s only four per cent, that isn’t that much!’

While this may not seem like a high amount, many Dean’s face the strict limitation that over 90 per cent of their faculty’s budgets go immediately to salaries. How can we reduce our costs by four per cent without layoffs? How can we lay off individuals when many of them are locked in to long term contracts? Suddenly, the prospect of reducing budgets by this amount becomes ever more daunting, especially if we do not want it to impact the quality of our education.

Across the board cuts can have serious short term impacts, and even greater long term ramifications as they impact the reputation of the University. While Brock may not be alone in its budget woes, it may be alone in proposing this kind of solution. As you sit and ponder your overzealous New Year’s resolutions and the even more outrageous second term textbook costs, consider the changes that may come as a result of this announcement. Moreover, if you feel strongly that this proposal not be in the cards at Brock, write to your representatives, professors and the administration of the university imploring them to seek alternate solutions and opportunities to those that may come to damage the reputation of your degree.

To find an update on the four per cent cuts at Brock University, visit brocku.ca/webfm_send/33877

*** Christopher Yendt is Chair of the BUSU Board of Directors

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One thought on “What about the four per cent?

  1. Nicely put, Chris.

    These budget cuts are all the more vexing given that many departments have undergone belt-tightening exercises since at 2009 (if not earlier). When I first arrived at Brock in 2004, it did seem as if there were some inefficiencies. But in the intervening years, things have become, at least in my view, much leaner, even before the new accounting system was rolled out.

    Frankly, I think having clearer accounting is a good thing. When I first arrived, it was never clear how the money generated by my teaching made its way back to my department. Now, we have a better understanding of this, and are close to having this information readily available. At the same time, it is a shame this accounting system wasn’t rolled out sooner, as rolling it out now during a time of falling enrollment exacerbates the potential to spawn a vicious cycle in which faculty are motivated to lower their standards to maintain sufficient enrollment to keep their classes from being cut. If such a tragedy of the commons were to become widespread, we might find faculty less inclined to push students intellectually for fear of them dropping out or switching majors, and as a result students might fail to develop skills (e.g., clear written and oral communication, analytical and critical thinking skills) and dispositions (e.g., the initiative and mindset of a life-long learner) needed in the 21st century workplace. If [1] this dynamic were to unfold, [2] nothing else changes at Brock, and [3] the MTCU begins to measure the short-and long-term employment outcomes of university degree holders by program and university (as they already do for the colleges), one might find Brock lose its presently improved reputation.

    What Ontario’s higher education funding system really needs is to be coupled with a way to independently assess students’ competencies when they enter university, and then measure these same competencies when they leave university. The results would allow faculty members to better structure their programs to improve students’ learning (though, at the same time, we should not punish programs for failing students when learning outcomes are clearly articulated). Additionally, such an entry assessment would better able us to shunt students into foundational or advanced courses as required, a practice already common at many public US universities. However, owing not just to logistics and will, but also the need for discipline or even program-specific assessments, this is an expensive solution. As a result, it is unlikely to be implemented without changes to the provincial funding model except in a piecemeal fashion at the departmental level as we (and other Ontario universities) more closely align our pedagogy with degree-level expectations.

    At the end of the day, I don’t understand why nobody planned for falling enrollment, be it at Brock (and here I’m equally holding the administration, faculty members, and the board accountable), at other universities, or at the MTCU. Demographic projections have been known for some time (e.g., David Foot’s 1996 _Boom, Echo and Bust_), yet I surmise that most decision-makers (i.e., members of the board, the administration or faculty members) were unaware of the trend now upon us. Had our strategic planning incorporated this information, perhaps we might have been collectively more cautious about university expansion, and would find ourselves now on sounder financial footing.

    Given that sunk costs are sunk, and we are by-and-large locked into decisions already made in the past, I would hope that future decisions be made by a university community that bears in mind that universities are not firms, and that our mission is a combination of teaching, research and service. As a result of this combined mission (which frankly depends on our bi-cameral organizational form), we need to take a long view toward solving and anticipating the university’s financial problems as well as charting a course through the future. In particular, we need to bear in mind that quick fixes (e.g., ‘eliminating programs that are not tied directly to an occupation’) create new, unanticipated problems down the road (e.g., I can imagine in 5 years the MTCU will demand that we now need more graduates who are ‘broadly-trained,’ or ‘accept fewer students into programs for occupation X, as we now have a glut of people in occupation X’).

    In closing, at a time when Ontario’s youth are expected to bear a higher long-term tax burden to care for an increasing number of retirees, Canada’s social contract (with many origins in the post-WWII era when Canada’s life-expectancies and population structure were very different from today: compare http://populationpyramid.net/canada/1965/ to http://populationpyramid.net/canada/2015/) demands we make the necessary investment in students so that they have the capacity, both in terms of problem-solving skills and income-earning potential, to meet this obligation. At the same time, we can’t do this without maintaining our research capacity, as it allows us to share the latest findings in our fields, train students in asking and answering rigorous questions, thinking critically, and communicating clearly.

    Whether this happens or not remains to be seen.

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