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Universities are Learning When More Actually Means Less - August 20, 2008
- Published on Wednesday, 20 August 2008 02:01
- Written by Paul Bowles
Universities are learning when more actually means less
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
As university students across the province head back to their classes, many will find significantly different institutions than those they left before the summer.
They can expect larger classes, cancelled courses, the threat of programs being discontinued and reduced levels of support in a range of student services from writing tutors to athletics.
On the face of it, this doesn't make sense. The provincial government has been touting a "40-per-cent increase" in college and university funding since 2001. The government has also been keen to emphasize that colleges and universities will receive $68 million more in funding this year.
This message is one the government has needed to repeat often as the aftershocks of its sudden decision last March to reduce public college and university funding by about $50 million from planned levels continue to be felt around the province.
So how can it be that more money is being spent on colleges and universities and yet a new round of belt-tightening and financial angst has descended on these post-secondary institutions? Is the government exaggerating its achievements? Or are universities and colleges crying wolf? To answer this requires a closer a look at how B.C is doing in terms of funding post-secondary education.
The first point to note is that the government's 40-per-cent figure is drawn from the annual budget estimates documents. In the post-secondary sector, governments have made a variety of one-time payments and funded additional initiatives late in the year so that the money going into the sector can differ significantly from the budget estimates. So, let's use the figures from the Ministry of Advanced Education's service plan reports. These provide a more accurate picture of actual spending and, after all, are the figures that the government uses itself to judge whether it has met its targets and so can reward itself with pay bonuses.
Since 2001, actual government spending on public post-secondary institutions has increased by 24.1 per cent based on the numbers in the ministry reports. Now, this is still a substantial increase, even if it is not as impressive as the government's preferred figure. But this has been outpaced by the increase in enrolment that has occurred since 2001.
The expansion in the number of seats is to the government's credit, but the increases in funding have fallen behind the growth in student numbers. Universities and colleges are receiving fewer dollars per student today than they were seven years ago. Not by much, but still less, and this isn't the end of the story.
That's because there have been price increases since 2001 and the value of those dollars has been eaten away by inflation. In fact, the consumer price index in B.C. has increased by close to 15 per cent since 2001. So, not only are universities and colleges receiving fewer dollars per student than they received seven years ago, but those dollars now buy 15 per cent less.
It gets worse. Because post-secondary institutions' costs consist mainly of wages and expensive high-tech equipment, journals and books, the higher education price index generally increases faster than the consumer price index. This would point to an even bigger drop in the purchasing power of the government dollars that universities and colleges receive.
Seen in this context, the government's increase of $68 million -- an apparent increase of 3.8 per cent on total spending of $1.8 billion -- actually represents a further real cut to the institutions. With provincial inflation running at an annual rate of three per cent and government estimates of a 7.5-per cent-increase in the number of student spaces this year, the $68 million is clearly far less than is needed.
The government has done a good job in increasing the number of spaces in universities and colleges so that more of the province's young people, as well as those seeking retraining or new challenges, can take the step to a more educated future.
But when they take that step, students are facing disappointments as the post-secondary sector struggles to find ways to teach more students but with fewer real dollars per student.
That's why the start of the new academic year will not be greeted with unbridled optimism in the classrooms, libraries, computer labs and meeting places of our province's public post-secondary institutions.
Paul Bowles is president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.
© The Vancouver Sun 2008