At a time when many universities and colleges are facing severe and unexpected spending cuts by their provincial governments, several are finding political solace in an unexpected place – the mayor’s office.
In Alberta, the mayors of the two largest cities have come out swinging on the side of their postsecondary institutions after the province tabled a budget cutting more than seven percent from the universities’ operating spending. In other parts of the country, too, city mayors have been speaking up to support their universities.
“I’ve seen it before,” said Olivier Marcil, vice-principal, external relations, for McGill University, “but it’s clear that more and more cities are really aware of their [universities’] impact.”
In Alberta, where universities are facing tough decisions about layoffs, program cuts and salary freezes, Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi publicly urged the province “to realize they made a terrible error in public policy” that will have an impact on “generations of students” as well as the community. His comments followed a speech given a few weeks earlier by Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, who said the province’s move to cut postsecondary education funding showed “short-term thinking” and wasn’t real leadership.
The Alberta budget, tabled March 7, reduced operating spending for the postsecondary sector by $147 million, or about seven percent. It is viewed as a nine-percent reduction by universities because the government had previously pledged to increase their spending by two percent.
Jim Lightbody, a University of Alberta political science professor specializing in municipal politics, said it is “the first time in a very long time that a mayor has felt it necessary, first in Edmonton and now in Calgary, to come to the defence of universities. That is because the provincial government has created an artificial fiscal crisis and has tried to find vulnerable targets for cost cutting rather than changing their revenue-generating side of the budget.”
Dr. Lightbody said he believes a mayor who defends universities can be helpful to their cause. “One of the most effective lobbyists is someone with no personal interest in the outcome,” he said. The Edmonton mayor’s support was unexpected, he said, “and it did cast the debate, for a short time, in a different light.”
In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi not only criticized the government for its move to cut postsecondary spending but also sent a letter to Mount Royal University, calling on “MRU to stand up to the provincial government on behalf of its students, faculty, and community, rather than capitulate to the government’s bad policy.” Mount Royal, where Mr. Nenshi taught business before entering politics, had announced that it would suspend new enrolment for the 2013-14 academic year in eight programs leading to a diploma, certificate or transfer, to help make up the shortfall in its operating budget.
Hope Henderson, MRU’s vice-president, university advancement, said the university welcomed the mayor’s defence of universities. “We do appreciate his support,” she said.
Other Canadian mayors have also defended their city’s universities in recent months. “Too often, governments, citizens and business people are blinded by the cost of our postsecondary institutions, without considering the benefits,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage in a recent opinion piece. “There is no asset that Halifax has that is more important, or of greater strategic value, than our six universities and the community college.”
Montreal’s mayor, Michael Applebaum, has said publicly that universities need to be well-funded to ensure their quality and excellence. Mr. Marcil, the McGill vice-principal, noted that even though higher education isn’t a municipal responsibility, mayors are increasingly recognizing the institutions’ social and economic importance. “McGill has a $5.2 billion impact on the city – of course, when we’re at risk, it concerns the mayor of Montreal.”