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Federal budget stays the course, while provinces begin to pull back

As universities react to tough provincial budgets, the federal budget contains only modest changes to the sector.

BY LEO CHARBONNEAU + ROSANNA TAMBURRI | MAR 22 2013

While universities in many provinces brace for cuts in provincial government spending, the federal budget delivered on March 21 offered modest measures affecting the university sector.

“Like many recent budgets, it contained many small measures related to training and higher education, none of which amount to significant changes to the postsecondary landscape,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a higher education consulting firm based in Toronto.

On the research side, the three granting councils received a total of $37 million in new funding, which coincides with a planned cut of the same amount, amounting to no changes in net funding. Most of the new funding will be targeted to specific programs. Of the $15 million received by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, 80 percent will be directed to the College and Community Innovation Program; the $15 million received by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will go to support the Patient-Oriented Research Strategy; and the $7 million received by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be targeted in part to research designed to improve the participation of persons with disabilities in the labour market. Core research grants and funding for scholarships and fellowships will be maintained at current levels.

There was an additional $165 million for Genome Canada and $225 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation; the latter sum comes from accrued interest on the foundation’s endowment.

University leaders said they were encouraged by the continued support for research. “Even in difficult fiscal times, the government recognizes that university research fuels a competitive advantage for Canada,” said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

On the international front, the government will invest $23 million over two years to promote Canada as an international study destination. This strategy contains two parts: $10 million over two years for marketing initiatives and $13 million over two years for the Mitacs Globalink program. The aim of the Globalink program is to attract foreign students to do research internships at Canadian universities and will now also allow Canadian students to take up research opportunities abroad.

Perhaps the biggest item in the budget is $300 million in funding that is to be redirected to a new Canada Jobs Grant program to help train or retrain Canadians for “labour market demands.” The grant will be for short-duration training at “eligible” training institutions, which includes community colleges, career colleges and trade union training centres.

On the provincial front

Meanwhile, cuts in provincial government spending on postsecondary education have left universities from coast to coast struggling to curb widening budget deficits and putting in place layoffs, salary freezes and other cost-reduction measures.

The University of Calgary announced it would freeze salaries of senior officials effective July 1 for one year and at a town hall meeting held March 21, senior administrators said the university may cut low-enrolment programs, the Calgary Herald reported.

The measures were spurred by a surprise seven-percent reduction in operating grants from the Alberta government in its 2013 budget. Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner also said the government would issue “mandate letters” to the province’s universities and colleges that would define their roles and the government’s expectations for a “more unified” postsecondary system. In the wake of the budget, faculty and students marched on the legislature to protest the cuts and what they saw as an incursion on academic freedom.

The University of Alberta, facing a projected budget gap of $67 million, reduced spending to all units and faculties by 1.5 percent and restricted most travel after the release of the provincial budget in March. It also asked deans to suggest ways to further cut spending and generate revenues over the next two years. U of A President Indira Samarasekera and acting provost Martin Ferguson-Pell, in a letter posted on the university’s website, said deans were asked to imagine a scenario where they would need to cut 20 percent of their budgets and to come up with ideas for revenue generation that would address at least 10 percent of the problem.

British Columbia delivered a balanced budget in February that included a $46-million cut in postsecondary education spending over three years. As a result, the University of Victoria asked all departments to cut four percent from their budgets, effective April 1.

Saskatchewan’s budget, released March 20, included a two-percent increase in operating grants to universities and colleges and a three-percent increase to technical institutes. The budget set aside funds for a new education savings plan and increased support for a scholarship program and a graduate retention program. It also earmarked funds for apprenticeship and skills training. Before the largely favourable budget was released, the University of Saskatchewan had put in place measures to offset a projected deficit of $44.5 million. It has eliminated 50 administrative and support positions since November.

After a tumultuous year in Quebec which saw student protests against proposed higher tuition fees sometimes turn violent and a protracted student boycott of classes, the provincial government imposed cuts of $250 million on universities, half of which were to be absorbed in 2012-13. The remainder is to be spread out over seven years.

Postsecondary institutions in Ontario, Manitoba and several Atlantic provinces were also expecting austerity measures in provincial budgets in April.

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