Posted February 5, 2009
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Education

Tough budget talk for UW's board
University of Waterloo Daily Bulletin

Waterloo - Budget cuts of a size that “will cause serious damage to the institution” are a possibility this year unless UW finds creative ways to bring in more money or make some savings, provost Amit Chakma told the board of governors yesterday.

He was giving a quick summary of the issues he and the deans are facing as they prepare the operating budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, which begins May 1. That budget will come for approval at the board’s next meeting in April.

Meanwhile, the budget for the current year is actually something of “a good news story”, Chakma said, reporting that what had looked like a deficit of almost $3 million when the year began in May has been wiped out thanks to enrolment growth over the past three terms. “We exceeded our targets,” he said, and suggested that doing the same thing in the coming year — especially when it comes to international students — is the biggest source of financial rescue.

Roughly half the university’s operating money comes in the form of grants from the Ontario government, and during the last several months of economic bad news, there have been hints that such grants will be “flatlined”, the provost said. The question is what that means, against a background of more than a decade with no increases from the government to cover rising costs. “We frankly do not know,” the provost said. “It could mean that any growth funding that we have been anticipating will not be there.”

Other universities seem to be planning and announcing budget cuts of about 5 per cent this year, Chakma said. “Our number is very close to that,” what with the annual increases in salary costs and utility bills, the vanishingly small returns on short-term investments, and the rising cost of scholarship funding. (Looming ahead: a possible need for higher pension contributions by next year. “Our pension fund is in trouble, but we have at least a two-year window for the fund to recover,” Chakma told the board.)

One possible, but drastic, step UW could take would be negotiating a cut in the salary increases that staff and faculty members are expecting as the 2009-10 year begins. A take-back of 1 per cent (one-third of the planned 3 per cent scale adjustment) would save around $2.5 million, the provost said. But “It will be a bad thing for us to try to extract concessions from our employee groups . . . it will affect morale in a very negative way.”

Probably more promising is bringing in money through higher enrolment: every extra 100 international students, or professional master’s students, would generate $1 million. “We have to either reduce our costs or generate more revenue,” said Chakma. “We are looking at both.”

There was no joy, earlier in yesterday’s meeting, when the board gave approval to 2009-10 tuition fees, with increases that vice-president (administration and finance) Dennis Huber said averaged 5 per cent “across the whole population of students”.

Justin Williams, president of the Federation of Students, referred to board discussion about indicators of academic quality at UW and summed up how he sees the situation: “It seems clear that the university is asking undergraduate students to pay more while potentially getting less.” In fact, he added, quality is bound to decline, as UW puts more faculty resources into graduate programs. “Undergraduates are being asked to take on a bigger burden so that we can expand our graduate enrolment. The markers that we set for quality are going down while the cost is going up.”

Said Chakma: “I wish I could give you a different answer . . . the province for a long, long time has not given us any inflation adjustment, and this year we may not even get what they promised us for growth. Students are carrying a heavier load.” He added that 2009-10 will be the last year for the government’s current policy on fees, which makes 5 per cent the limit on the average year-to-year fee increase, and there has been no indication of what the rules will be next year.

“If we had our druthers,” said president David Johnston, “we wouldn’t be charging tuition fees.” For that matter, he added, “We’d have a four-to-one student-to-faculty ratio,” rather than the current figure of around 23 students to each professor. But that’s daydreaming; meanwhile, UW has to balance a budget.

Venture capitalist Tim Jackson, one of the community representatives on the board, recalled that two decades ago he had been a student governor, and later served as president of the Ontario Federation of Students. “I to this day believe that there should be no undergraduate tuition fees,” he said. “It’s the right social policy to have.” But that’s not realistic right now: “How do we ensure access, given the framework that the provincial government has put in place?”

In response to a question, Bob Truman, director of institutional analysis and planning, told the board that the fee increases “are unlikely to give us any difficulty” in meeting UW’s cherished guarantee of financial aid so that no one is priced out of undergraduate studies at UW.

“Financial need won’t prevent them,” Huber agreed, saying that “it’s more of an attitudinal issue” that discourages some students from going to university. Johnston told the board that UW now leads Canada in the percentage of the operating budget that goes to student assistance — plus, of course, there’s co-op, “the best method of financing a university education.”

© Copyright 2009/Exchange Morning Post/Exchange Business Communications Inc.
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