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Queen’s faculty present at the meeting questioned the need for what they see as drastic measures.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A top administrator at Queen’s University described its financial troubles as an existential threat in a meeting with faculty last month.

Queen’s provost Matthew Evans made the remarks in a mid-December meeting with professors from the faculty of arts and science, who reacted skeptically to his explanation of the need for cutbacks.

“This is very, very serious. Queen’s could cease to exist if we don’t deal with this issue,” Dr. Evans said.

The Kingston university is planning for a deficit of $48-million this year, an improvement on earlier projections for a deficit of more than $60-million. The operating shortfall is expected to be covered by university reserves, as was last year’s deficit of more than $50-million, according to its financial statements.

But that can’t go on forever, Dr. Evans said. Queen’s has committed itself to a balanced budget in 2025-26.

Like universities across Ontario, Queen’s has been hit hard by a provincial government decision to cut tuition by 10 per cent in 2019 and freeze it at that level ever since. Queen’s says it has lost $180-million as a result. Its costs have also increased because of inflation, and its international student numbers have not bounced back to prepandemic levels.

In the meeting with faculty, which was posted to YouTube, Dr. Evans laid out the need to find millions in cost savings. He said he’s concerned about those whose jobs are potentially threatened, but he’s also concerned “about the survival of this institution.”

“Unless we sort this out, we will go under,” Dr. Evans said.

Faculty present at the meeting questioned the need for what they see as drastic measures. They also worried about the effect on students of cuts to staff and services. One of the proposed moves is to eliminate classes with fewer than 10 students, unless there is a compelling case to offer it.

“There surely can’t be a debate that small classes are more expensive to teach than big classes,” Dr. Evans told the meeting.

Responding to uneasy rumblings in the room, Dr. Evans said, “It’s a shame that there’s this antagonism here.”

Elaine Power, a professor in the school of kinesiology and health studies, described the meeting as “stunning.”

She said many faculty have doubts about the need for such rapid cuts, as the university has overestimated its deficits in recent years.

The university has had a hiring freeze for several months and is now contemplating dismissing the staff who make departments run, she said. Classes taught by contract faculty are also being cut.

“We can’t manage without the staff that run the place,” Prof. Power said. “My sense is that people are really stressed and demoralized.”

In May, bond rating agency DBRS Morningstar said Queen’s has a “relatively strong balance sheet” and enjoys the financial flexibility to weather a difficult period without requiring drastic cuts that could affect its core academic mission.

In an interview with The Globe, Dr. Evans said Queen’s has run up against three major financial hurdles: inflation, the provincially mandated tuition freeze, and a decline in international student numbers.

Institutions have increasingly turned to international students, who pay tuition fees several times higher than domestic students, to make up for funding shortfalls. At Queen’s, international students made up 11 per cent of total students in 2022-23, down from 12 per cent in 2020-21. That decline, blamed in part on the effects of the pandemic, cost the university several million dollars, Dr. Evans said. Queen’s has brought in a consultant to help boost those numbers and diversify its source countries, he added.

About 54 per cent of Queen’s expenditures are tied up in salaries, according to its financial statements, so any effort to curtail costs has to look closely at those costs, Dr. Evans said. The university is aiming to minimize job cuts, but some people will likely lose their jobs, he said.

“We’ve managed to get by so far by relying on our reserves,” Dr. Evans said. “We will probably run out of reserves in about a year or so. So we have to save these costs. There’s no way around it.”

Other universities across Ontario are also struggling financially. At least 10 universities in the province are expected to run operating deficits this year, according to recent public remarks by Steve Orsini, president of the Council of Ontario Universities. Ontario provides the lowest level of per-student funding in the country and effectively caps enrolment numbers for each institution by limiting the number of subsidized domestic student places.

A blue-ribbon panel report on the financial sustainability of the postsecondary sector in November recommended that universities be allowed to raise domestic tuition fees by 5 per cent next year to address their financial pressures. The Ford government has so far not produced a policy response, but has said that before it agrees to a tuition increase it wants to ensure institutions are operating as efficiently as possible.

“We’re not seeing a huge amount of movement,” Dr. Evans said.

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