U of M must address equity of student fees

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

University of Manitoba president David Bernard got off without serious battle wounds when Education Minister James Allum rejected his proposal to increase the graduate student fees by more than 300 per cent. He was fortunate, because the University of Saskatchewan attracted national media attention by firing a tenured professor (since rehired) who had criticized the university for its plan to merge faculties and save money.

Nevertheless, the amount students pay in fees is an important issue for the U of M to address. Allum should ask for a complete accounting from all universities and colleges in the province. There are good reasons to question whether resources are being allocated efficiently and fairly.

For example, at the U of M, there is considerable cross-subsidization. Students who take introductory courses with 200 other students — especially if they are taught by low-cost graduate students and lecturers — subsidize upper-level students in courses with 20 or 30 students taught by tenured professors.

Similarly, undergraduate students in faculties where the teaching costs are relatively low — arts, education, human ecology and nursing — subsidize students in faculties where the teaching costs are relatively high, including agriculture and food sciences, dentistry, medicine, music and pharmacy.

Likewise, undergraduate students subsidize graduate students. Over the last few decades, the U of M has increased the number of graduate students at a much faster rate than undergraduates. And increasingly more money has been directed toward graduate education.

Between 2001 and 2008, for example, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded increased by only 23 per cent (from 3,529 to 4,351) while the number of graduate degrees awarded increased by more than twice that amount, 48 per cent (from 509 to 752).

The shift in resources can be seen more clearly in some faculties. Between 2001 and 2008, agriculture and food sciences reduced the number of undergraduate degrees awarded by 28 per cent (from 170 to 123) and increased the number of graduate degrees awarded by 63 per cent (from 41 to 67). Similarly, architecture decreased the number of undergraduate degrees awarded by 18 per cent (from 96 to 79) and increased the number of graduate degrees awarded by whopping 50 per cent (from 41 to 62). Over these years, the funding to agriculture increased by 27 per cent and architecture by 45 per cent. The cost of living increased by only 16 per cent.

Why have senior administrators allowed faculties and schools to shift resources from the education of undergraduates to graduate students?

Economist Thomas Sowell explained similar findings in the words of a science professor at the University of Michigan: “Every minute I spend in an undergraduate classroom is costing me money and prestige.”

In other words, to be productive — that is to be valued — professors need highly talented and motivated graduate students to work on their research projects. Not surprisingly, graduate students are much more interesting to teach, and their classes are much smaller. Graduate students also teach large first-year classes for slave wages.

Until universities change their incentives from valuing research grants and publications to high-quality education for undergraduates, increasingly more graduate students will be admitted and undergraduates and taxpayers will continue to subsidize their education.

For these reasons, Allum should ask all university and college presidents for a concrete financial plan in which they explain how they will ensure students, undergraduate and graduate, are paying their fair share and are not subsidizing nor being subsidized by other students.

The minister is not the only one who deserves to know students are paying fairly for excellent education programs; students and taxpayers also deserve this information.