Post-Secondary Spending: Let the Debate Begin

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton, Uncategorized

On March 27, 2005, the presidents of Manitoba’s four largest post-secondary institutions—Presidents Axworthy, Szathmáry, Visentin and Zabudsky—pleaded in the Op-Ed pages of the Winnipeg Free Press for more money so that their institutions could do more great and wonderful things to make Manitoba a better place to live.

It was Easter Sunday, so it was not surprising that these presidents wanted more golden eggs in their baskets, some from taxpayers and some from students. But, according to the articles, a stingy government has forced them to prioritize, and in some cases to cut and slash, something that University and College presidents are not accustomed to doing. That’s not really the case, and their own words raise questions about the way they use the money they already receive.

President Axworthy, University of Winnipeg, argues that government funding has not been “stable and ongoing.” But the Department of Education recently published A statistical profile of education and training in Manitoba, 1998/99 to 2002/03, which contradicts his claims. It shows that the funding of public universities increased from $223.4 million to $275.4 million, an increase of over 23 percent, over a four-year period. Over the same period, the colleges increased their government funding from $63.8 million to $90.8 million, a 42 percent increase.

The largest increases were, however, for capital projects. For universities, the capital grants increased from $10.9 million to $38.9 million, between 1999-00 and 2000-01, a 257 percent increase. For colleges, the grants increased in that same year from $5.2 million to $7.8 million, a 50 percent increase. Not surprisingly, these increases happened immediately following the election of the NDP government in September, 1999. In the spring of 2000, no one called the government stingy, and no one, except perhaps these wide-eyed presidents, expected these increases to be repeated year after year.

Nevertheless, President Visentin, Brandon University, is now wringing his hands with grief: “These days, our Dean of Students asks her staff to buy their own pens and pencils, though thankfully she is still able to provide counselors with boxes of tissues.” If this is true, then one wonders why his university has so many Deans, Associate Deans, and counselors. Check the web site. Brandon University has about as many people in supporting positions as it has in teaching and research positions. If the President cannot afford to provide pens and pencils for his supporting personnel, perhaps he should not have so many of them in the first place. Many post-secondary institutions, in fact, have leaner operations.

Without any embarrassment, President Zabudsky claims that: “We run Red River as a business….” Earlier in the article, however, he says: “Grant allocations have not kept pace with cost increases associated with such things as collective-agreement settlements….” What? Many will doubt his logic. Only businesses that do not deserve to prosper would allow their obligations to out-strip their revenues, especially their obligations enshrined in multi-year collective agreements. Good businesses, like good universities, would make sure that they never signed collective agreements that they could not afford.

President Szathmáry rightfully acknowledges that research universities, like the University of Manitoba, have produced a number of important medical innovations. But then she asks: “What benefits will arise from our cutting-edge research on HIV/AIDS prevention?” Unfortunately, she does not seem to realize that medical innovations do not necessarily benefit universities. Rather, many medical innovations cause ill-effects for universities, even the ones that discovered them. An examination of the provincial budgets over the last ten years shows clearly that an increasing proportion of the provincial expenditures has been directed to health care and a decreasing proportion has been directed to post-secondary education. Obviously, with limited funds, the more that is given to health care (HIV prevention, for example), the less there is to give to other things like colleges and universities.

President Zabudsky of Red River College says that we need a “vigorous public-policy discussion.” A discussion, of course, has many sides rather than one side in which only the presidents have a say. To initiate it, I ask: Are funds limited? Should we follow President Axworthy’s direction and help the U of W build houses and a dialogue centrein downtown Winnipeg? Or, should we follow Dr. Visentin’s suggestion and fund Brandon to increase the salaries of faculty members and hire more administrators and counselors? Perhaps we should fund Dr. Szathmary to expand the U of M’s Aboriginal Focus Programs in downtown Winnipeg across the street from Dr. Axworthy’s dialogue centre.

Perhaps—just perhaps—there are not enough golden eggs for all of their Easter baskets. If true, whose priorities should be funded? Now, that would be an excellent issue for a vigorous debate.

Dr. Rodney A. Clifton is a sociologist of education, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba. He has been teaching for 32 years, with over 25 years at the U of M. Obviously, he is biased in favour of his own university.