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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

A teachable moment for Canada's universities Add to ...

With universities across Canada gearing up for the fall term, they all face variations of the same problem: The increase in their faculty bill is unsustainable.

Faculty salaries since 2000 have risen by more than a third, or about twice the consumer price index, and in most provinces, well above increases in basic operating grants from the provinces.

Since salaries for faculty and staff eat up about 70 per cent of a university budget, those kinds of increases can't continue. Not only have salaries been rising by 3.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, but "progress through the ranks," as it is called (otherwise known as promotion to a higher classification), means increases of 5 to 6 per cent in the overall wage bill.

It's an unsustainable rate of increase, especially now that all governments are running large deficits.

Tell that to faculty and staff unions. Their answer is twofold: Provinces should fork over more money, and it's a competitive world for talent. So pay up. Unions asked to open collective bargaining agreements have refused. (An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, quoting an American study, said Canada has the highest entry-level salaries for professors.)

Professors, by and large, are teaching less than several decades ago, although class sizes have risen. That's one reason (provincial funding restraint and government-driven higher enrolments are the others) for the huge class sizes that greet undergraduates - who, by the way, have been paying fees that have risen much faster than inflation.

Their higher fees have filled part of the financial gap in most provinces caused by minimal increases in base-budget provincial funding. Undergraduates, paying more, have nonetheless been greeted by impersonal, huge classes, featuring little contact with actual professors, but teaching assistants (PhD candidates) or part-time lecturers.

It's the biggest weakness of too many universities. But since parents and students haven't screamed, figuring there is nothing that they can do, governments and universities have done little about it.

If big universities spent half as much time and sustained effort trying to improve undergraduate teaching as they do searching for more research money, they, the students and the country might be better off.

Recently, the presidents of five big Canadian universities (British Columbia, Alberta, Toronto, McGill and Montreal) publicly demanded a greater share for themselves of public research money. They argued that more research money and graduate students for their campuses would promote excellence, thereby enhancing the country's research capabilities and competitiveness. Other, presumably lesser, universities should concentrate more on teaching.

This is a bad idea, poorly expressed. Back in the 1990s, a handful of university presidents (Rob Pritchard, Martha Piper and Robert Lacroix) and federal civil servants, worked with senior ministers (Paul Martin, John Manley) and prime minister Jean Chrétien on the suite of policies that have so greatly assisted universities. These included, among other initiatives, the Canada Research Chairs, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Genome Canada, plus increases in funding for the academic granting councils.

The policies' subtext was to assist disproportionately the 12 or so most research-intensive universities. But nobody publicly articulated that objective, because had they done so, every other university would have squawked.

By going public with this demand (whatever happened to the other research-intensive universities such as Western or Queen's or Laval or Dalhousie?), the Big Five presidents predictably have brought down on them the wrath of all the other universities.

Theirs was a bad idea anyway. The Big Five were already receiving about a third of all federal grant money. They have greater private fundraising capabilities than many other universities. What they need to do is to carry on getting a big slice of public research money, while focusing much harder on undergraduate teaching, which The Globe and Mail student satisfaction surveys consistently show leave lots to be desired at those schools.

(In fact, some years ago, when the Maclean's annual survey was still credible, putting its results with those of The Globe's suggested the country's best all-around university was Western.)

The Big Five do deserve sympathy because they share with all schools the fiscal pinch of wages and salaries running ahead of revenues. The pinch has obviously varied from province to province depending on the increase in provincial transfers and whether provinces allowed fee increases above inflation.

University boards that demand higher transfers from provincial governments are getting the cold shoulder. Governments are strapped. They are saying to universities: You are arm's-length institutions, so fix your problem. In other words, do something about your wage bill.

The universities pinch is part of a wider problem: Public-sector union contracts are running ahead of private-sector ones at a time when public finances are in the tank.

This, too, can't continue when governments start to rein in spending to reduce swelling deficits.

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