By Doug Hallett
Top University of Guelph officials struggled to justify their new approach to cost cutting at a town hall meeting attended by hundreds of skeptical students and faculty members.
The U of G is “one of the first institutions in Canada to do this,” university president Alastair Summerlee told the crowd filling a large university hall early Thursday afternoon. The province “has been taking an interest in what we are doing,” he said. The U of G’s cost cutting measures are through a system called the Program Prioritization Process, imported from the United States
The province has suggested the U of G might promote its new approach as a “best practice” for universities, but “we are not interested in promoting this across the (university) system,” Summerlee said.
Summerlee and two other top officials spent well over an hour trying to explain what they are trying to accomplish with the PPP system. Then they were grilled for about 45 minutes by almost 20 students and faculty members.
Two members of a campus group called the Guelph Student Mobilization Committee challenged Summerlee on being a leader in use of PPP, contending it will lead to negative consequences for the university, particularly the arts and social sciences.
“This is not bowing to the (provincial) government. This is not kowtowing to what they want,” Summerlee told one of them. Rather, “this has a lot to do with us not having enough money to deliver what we want.”
He told the other that funding cuts don’t have to mean weaker programs, as the U of G’s Ontario Agricultural College has shown over the past two years in successfully dealing with cuts.
“Just saying ‘we have always been like that, don’t touch us’ . . . I think we’ll go the way of the dinosaur” if the university takes this stance, Summerlee said.
The university administration is proposing cuts totalling $32.4 million over three years to address a structural deficit. That’s the gap between projected additional expenses and additional revenue over the next three years if nothing is done to change the situation.
The $32.4 million is the gap between projected additional expenses of $50.5 million, mainly to cover compensation costs, and projected extra revenue of $18.1 million, mainly from tuition hikes.
The U of G’s expenses are increasing at a rate of 3.4% a year, while its revenue is increasing by only 1.3% a year, said John Miles, the university’s assistant vice-president (finance and services).
Miles said 75% of the planned cuts, or $24.2 million, will come from colleges, with the heaviest burden of cuts falling on the College of Arts.
Another 23% of the cuts are to come from non-college programs, with 2% from ancillary sources. He said non-colleges will be told to find equal savings in each of the three years, while colleges will be given a bit more time – they’ll be allowed to delay half of their cuts to the last of the three years.
Asked by email how the College of Arts might be affected, college dean Donald Bruce had no comment Friday. “Right now we are still working through the issues. So, at the present time: no comment,” he responded by mail.
The university is planning not only to cut, but also to put more money into some priority areas. This money for “reinvestment for change” is to come from the U of G’s financial reserves, Miles said.
Summerlee said the province has traditionally given grants to universities and colleges based simply on numbers of students, but the government is moving to “performance-based allocation of resources.” This means, he said, that the province is trying to get post-secondary institutions to “declare how they are different . . . they are very keen on us to differentiate.”
The U of G is basing its budget projections for the next three years on no increases in funding from the cash-strapped provincial government. But U of G officials fear that unless they make the sort of changes being proposed, the university could see its funding cut, he said.
“If we say ‘get stuffed, we are going to stay exactly as we are,’ ” then the province might give the U of G less money, Summerlee said in response to a question from a faculty member of the philosophy department.
Provost and vice-president (academic) Maureen Mancuso said the U of G can’t rely on enrolment growth anymore to bring in more money, as further enrolment growth would be very difficult without a corresponding decline in quality. Mancuso said PPP is not the only tool the university is using to assign cuts. She also said the PPP ranking of 492 university programs into five groups or “quintiles,” with the top-ranked ones higher up, shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of the quality of the programs. PPP “is not a determination or an assessment of quality,” she stressed.
This assertion didn’t stop a young female questioner from suggesting the PPP ranking list has “tarnished” some of the U of G’s programs.
A representative of the Central Student Association expressed concern that the new approach to cost-cutting could hurt the U of G’s reputation as “one of the most comprehensive universities in Canada.”
The PPP report, which went to the U of G’s senate on Oct. 9, will go to its board of governors on Oct. 23.
There will be a series of college forums on the issue in October and November. College deans will be asked to produce plans on how to achieve budget targets so cuts can start in the 2014-15 budget year.
The process that led to the new PPP ranking had university departments fill out 492 standardized evaluation forms between November and March. Then a 21-member task force, made up of faculty, staff and students, spent 13 weeks reviewing and ranking the programs and making recommendations. The task force was aided by a U.S.-based consulting firm that developed the PPP process.
The 492 programs “were evaluated within 10 criteria using a rubric that allowed for one of three scoring options: below expectations, meets expectations or exceeds expectations,” says the task force’s report, released in early October.
By Doug Hallett