Let Universities Get Back to Academic Work

Dr. Julia M. Wright, President, Dalhousie Faculty Association (posted Sept 10, 2019)

Almost all universities in Canada are public institutions that used to be primarily supported by public funding. As public funding has declined, partly because of reductions in federal transfer payments in the

Let’s start with some numbers from Statistics Canada. According to Todd Robertson’s “Changing Patterns of University Finance” (StatsCan 2003), “between 1992-1993 and 1999-2000 ... government-provided operating revenues fell from 76% to 62%.” The fall continued. 2017-18 data for universities and degree-granting colleges shows that figure nationally was 47% and, in Nova Scotia, total government contributions (primarily federal and provincial) were just 41% of operating revenues. Post-secondary students in Nova Scotia contributed more to the costs of higher education than the provincial government: 31% vs 30%.

Increasing tuition so much has had a series of knock-on effects. Despite what some pundits say, of course it reduces access. Yes, students can apply for loans and yes there are scholarships—but don’t underestimate how discouraging $30,000 of debt can be to a teenager, especially one from a family that isn’t used to handling large debt like a mortgage. There’s evidence that high tuition negatively affects mental health, and student groups have been raising this concern for years. For some time now, I’ve been talking to students who have two, even three, part-time jobs during term.

Studies show that stress and long working hours affect our ability to concentrate, our health, and our relationships. Students are not immune. So universities face increased demand for health-related services and other supports. Add to that the expense of international recruitment and you can see that increasing tuition revenues has a high price-tag, and in more than just dollars.

And how much higher can tuition go? University tuition is already about seven times higher than it was in the early 1980s, while minimum wage has roughly tripled (full-time faculty pay has approximately tripled, too).

Donations don’t have such steep costs in access and health. Even better, according to Statistics Canada, donations from individuals to Nova Scotia’s degree-granting institutions increased about 50% between 2013/14 and 2017/18. Sounds great! Or does it? We’ve heard about donors interfering with the integrity of academic operations, but there’s a fiscal catch too. Every charitable donation to a university means a tax break and so less tax revenue to pay for schools, healthcare, libraries, and universities—making them all more reliant on donations.

Universities are now competing with each other as well as other public institutions for donations. This also costs money: fundraisers, event-planners, communications staff, catering, and so on. Student groups are setting up foodbanks while their institutions pass around trays of shrimp at receptions.

That leaves cutting faculty costs. University administrations across Canada have chipped away at full-time faculty numbers for years, mostly by not replacing retirees. As enrolments have risen, they’ve offloaded teaching onto faculty with short-term contracts that often don’t pay a living wage, let alone support research. Back to Statistics Canada: in 2017-18, over 5% of higher education operating revenues in Nova Scotia came from the major federal research agencies.

CUPE found that 53.6% of faculty positions in Canada in 2016-17 were short-term jobs, affecting continuity and stability of degree programs across the country as well as research. The 2017 Fundamental Science Review provided a chart showing “Canada’s trailing status in numbers of doctoral degrees awarded on a per capita basis” and “our low density of employed researchers” in comparison to the G7 and other countries. Meanwhile, fundraising, international recruitment, and other non-academic units in universities grow to chase replacement dollars for lost government funding.

At what point do we start thinking about universities as large charities that provide some niche housing and do a bit of teaching and research on the side?

With universities so bogged down by the costs of alternatives to public funding, how do we compete in the knowledge economy or the tech sector? Address the scientific challenges of climate change and manage the cultural adjustments it will require? Deal with rising social inequality and the tensions ratcheted up by fake news?

Universities are infrastructure. As research institutions, they advise governments, create practical solutions, and imagine new possibilities, and faculty draw on that research to educate teachers, healthcare workers, civil servants, engineers, artists, journalists, economists, and PhDs, to name just a few. Post-secondary students are not only part of our society—as graduates, they will be critical to its effective functioning.

It’s time for the federal and provincial governments to work together to restore public funding so that universities can get back to working full-time on the academic mission.