In response to the article: “What about the four per cent?”
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 enrolment exacerbates the potential to spawn a vicious cycle in which faculty are motivated to lower their standards to maintain sufficient enrolment 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  this dynamic were to unfold,  nothing else changes at Brock, and  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 enrolment, 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 bicameral organisational 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 five 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 populationpyramid.net/canada/1965/ to 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 incomeearning 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.
*** Jeff Boggs is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Brock University.