The money squeeze on universities

RAE CORELLI April 25 1988

The money squeeze on universities

RAE CORELLI April 25 1988

The money squeeze on universities


The University of Toronto’s John P. Robarts Library houses the largest university book collection in Canada and the seventh-largest in North America. It looks like a building that can take care of itself. Because of the intimidating angular bulk of its concrete curtain walls and futuristic pods, students have been calling it Fort Book almost from the day it opened 16 years ago.

But that impression of invulnerability is an illusion. Inside, the library’s collection—which contains most of the university’s 6.8 million books—is deteriorating as it ages. As well, university officials estimate that a sprinkler system to reduce the risk of fire would cost more than $1 million, which the university does not have. Once a monument to academic excellence, the Robarts library has come to symbolize the dismal reality that has overtaken the country’s 54 degree-granting institutions: a severe funding crisis, which threatens the quality of postsecondary education.

The University of Toronto and other schools are turning away thousands of qualified applicants because they are already overcrowded and do not have the money to expand and hire more teachers. Indeed, a blue-ribbon advisory board to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney warned him last December that the country faced a bleak economic future unless Canadian universities produced more students who were skilled in science and engineering. To that end, the 13-member National Advisory Board on Science and Technology, representing the business, labor, academic and research communities, urged Ottawa to double the federal contribution to university research and development to more than $1 billion during the next three years.

Currently, the federal government provides about 60 per cent of the money spent on Canadian universities, and a federal finance department spokesman noted that federal contributions had increased to $5.4 billion in the 1988-1989 fiscal year from $4.2 billion in 1984-1985. But most of those funds are channelled through provincial treasuries—which often divert the funds for other purposes. As a result, the board has joined student organizations, faculty associations and university administrations

across the country in urging Ottawa to ensure that federal funds actually reach postsecondary educational institutions. Declared U of T vice-president and provost Joan Foley: “It is not an exaggeration to say that this whole question of

funding is threatening the integrity of the university.”

Many schools cannot afford to replace worn-out or obsolete equipment, or even repair buildings. At Montreal’s 167year-old McGill University, nearly 400 students—four times the usual enrolment-crowd a single, first-year English course. At the University of Toronto, which with 35,000 full-time students has the nation’s largest enrolment, the auditorium seats in the 20-year-old medical sciences building are falling apart because there is not enough money for regular maintenance. In Halifax, Dalhousie University is losing professors because it cannot match the salaries paid by schools in Ontario and the United States.

Certainly, such leaders as David Strangway, the president of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia, are pessimistic about their schools’ futures. For one thing, the British Columbia Court of Appeal last January struck down UBC’s

policy of mandatory retirement for faculty members at age 65, on the grounds that it violated the Canadian charter of rights. Without the flexibility or money to hire bright, young scholars, Strangway said, UBC could be crippled.

In addition, UBC officials estimate that the university will need $342 million during the next five years to repair some buildings and replace others. Kenneth Pinder, head of the chemical engineering department, said that some of his laboratory equipment is at least 25 years old and that the chemical engineering building itself is “overcrowded and somewhat dangerous” because students are using large quantities of chemicals in close quarters. Daniel Birch, the university’s provost and academic vice-president, noted that shelves of books in the school’s library are draped in plastic sheets—because there are leaks in the building’s roof. And Dennis Capozza, president of the UBC faculty association, said that because of seemingly endless restraint, “morale is declining very badly.” He added, “The general willingness to go the extra mile—nowadays, you don’t get that out of faculty.”

Premature old age has overtaken

even relatively new schools. At the University of Victoria, which opened in 1963, some students are still working in 50-year-old huts, which once belonged to the army. And Simon Fraser University, which opened in 1965 in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, needs $25 million worth of essential building maintenance that has been delayed because of provincial restraint programs.

The pattern of overcrowding, money shortages and dilapidation extends across the country. Abbott Conway, past

president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, said that in one of the classrooms on the fourth floor of the 1860s-vintage East Asian Studies building, both the air conditioning and the heating have to be “on at full blast” to provide a reasonable temperature. Said Conway: “It’s a bit unusual, but it does underline the situation.” Meanwhile, University of Toronto registrar and assistant vice-president for planning Daniel Lang said that U of T alone will probably be forced to turn away about 7,000 qualified applicants in June—10 per cent more than last year—because the school is already operating at about 108-per-cent capacity.

And he added that the university’s 1988-1989 operating budget of about $400 million is $48.5 million below estimated needs.

As a result, said Lang, equipment that ordinarily lasts up to

nine years is still being used after 15 years. In order to reduce utilities costs in cold weather, the university regularly delays turning up the heat, sometimes until 9 a.m.—three hours later than it used to. Said Lang, referring to the constant financial problems: “It’s like Chinese water torture, and the cumulative effect is very serious.”

In Quebec, Richard Pérusse, director general of the province’s Conference of Rectors and Principals, said that the Quebec Council of Universities esti-

mates underfunding for the current year at about $100 million. And McGill planning director Michel Robillard said that by the end of the current fiscal year, his school alone will have an accumulated deficit of $39 million.

The financial problems of universities

have been aggravated, said U of T’s Foley, by the fact that “publishers are starting to gouge university libraries with price increases on scholarly publications. Journals and so on that departments simply must have are going up by 50 per cent, absolutely ridiculous figures. They believe that universities are captive buyers—that we have to buy.”

At the heart of the funding crisis is the system by which governments make grants to universities—one that academics across the country have criticized. The federal and provincial governments used to share the cost 50:50, and the provinces were required to spend the education dollars they got from Ottawa on education. But in 1977 the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, after difficult negotiations with the provinces, removed those requirements. In Ottawa, Anthony Macerollo, chairman of the 400,000-member Canadian Federation of Students, said that the provinces have been systematically cutting back their commitments to postsecondary education. Said Macerollo: “It’s a political crime, and nobody knows about it. We’re talking about billions and billions of dollars going from the feds to the provinces that are completely unaccounted for. Provinces are building roads with education money during elections.” Because of the cash crisis, many universities have launched intensive fund-raising £ drives. The U of T, for one, an= nounced in December that it has begun a campaign to raise $100 million over the next five years.

Victor Sim, associate executive secretary of the 26,000-member Canadian Association of University Teachers, also blamed the change in the funding mechanism. Said Sim: “No one can tell me that it is unreasonable to expect the provinces to spend the money the federal government provides for education on education.” Sim said that in the 1960s, Canada had begun building a high-quality university system, but it has begun to deteriorate. He added: “The slide is not irreversible, but unless there is a major national effort it is going to be.” Stopping that slide is now the priority on campuses from St. John’s to Victoria.