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I’m just sayin’…

January 14, 2010

From “Where all that money is going: Tuition rises, class size grows, and the bureaucracy gets big,” W.D. Smith, Macleans ( Jan. 14/10):

The annual tuition fee debate has begun. This is the war dance that takes place every winter, when senior university administrators announce that students yet again face substantial hikes. Those administrators roll out the rationale they use every year: the increases are necessary to protect educational quality, top faculty costs top dollar, and the only alternatives are declining quality and staff layoffs or increased government funding. Students get angry. They claim that university is becoming a place for only the wealthy, that quality has suffered enough, and that debt loads are becoming unmanageable. Boards of governors—the guardians of public interest when it comes to the operation of universities—wring their hands and voice genuine empathy. They hope for solutions but find none. And then, as they always do, they approve the increases proposed by senior administration.

Here’s the thing: the students have a point—at least according to a detailed analysis of the finances of Canada’s largest 25 universities. A study of 21 years of data compiled annually by StatsCan for the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO) reveals some startling trends. In 1987-88, the top 25 universities spent $6 billion across all their activities; by 2007-08, that had increased by almost four times inflation, to $21 billion. That equates to about 13 per cent of Canada’s health care budget, or more than the entire defence budget. And that’s only the top 25 schools.…

Why the declines? In large part, they’re because of skyrocketing central administrative costs. Shockingly, 20 cents is now spent on central administration for every dollar spent on instruction and non-sponsored research; back in 1987-88, 12 cents went to administration. At the average top 25 university, central administration (including external relations) now consumes $18 million that previously would have flowed to instruction. (For a G13 school, it’s $20 million; for the top 5, $39 million.)

Even this reduced level of classroom funding now seems less focused on providing quality education. A key measure of university commitment to quality is faculty salary expenditure. However, only 57.6 per cent of instruction and non-sponsored research budgets now goes to academic salaries—well below the 64.2 per cent of 1987-88. These “savings” are used to fund increased cost levels for non-academic staff, travel, benefits and professional fees. On top of that, there has been a swing away from full faculty and toward cheaper, less experienced teaching assistants and sessional lecturers.

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