In recent weeks there have been cries of outrage from students and some faculty over the “TransformUS” prioritization process being adopted at the University of Saskatchewan. These complaints range from describing the process as one of ‘austerity’ to concerns over where funding will be lost. What many people fail to realize is that this process will be beneficial for the university in the long term.
The administration is pursuing this process because it is forecasting a deficit of $44.5 million by 2016. As President Ilene Busch-Vishniac wrote in her campus-wide Jan. 11 email, “the extent of our resources is not sufficient to maintain the breadth of our programming and activity.”
Like any other organization, the U of S must prepare an operating budget each year. On the revenue side of the equation, it receives government grants and investment income and charges tuition (a user fee). Its operating expenditures consist of wages, scholarships, utilities and initiatives not related to construction. These last include accrediting the medical college, expanding the nursing program and maintaining the library.
In constructing the university’s budget, the administration has a responsibility to balance income and expenditures. If they do not, the university will spend through its reserve and be forced to borrow. With debts come interest payments, which are more expenditures.
Just as for government, it is wrong for a university to leave the bill for today’s programs and services to tomorrow’s students and taxpayers.
The provincial government has signalled that the university can no longer expect increases to its operating grant in the five per cent range. To quote the university website’s Rumour Mill, “our operating expenses are growing at a higher rate than our operating revenue.”
This situation leaves two options: increase tuition or decrease expenditures. Thankfully for students, the university has been clear that it will not use tuition increases to close the deficit.
Instead of decreasing each college’s funding by equal amounts through across-the-board cuts and leaving the deans to figure out how to make do with less, the university is pursuing a campus-wide evaluation of the programs and services it offers in order to make focused spending cuts.
Frankly, I see nothing wrong with evaluating what the university does from time to time. Some of the programs and initiatives the university undertakes are bound to be more effective than others, and realigning funding with those findings makes perfect sense. This goes for any organization.
Robert C. Dickeson, who wrote the book on program prioritization, grasps the problem our university faces. He writes that universities are “unrealistically striving to be all things to all people… rather than focusing their resources on the mission and programs that they can accomplish with distinction.”
Program prioritization moves the university away from across-the-board mediocrity and allows the school to focus on what it is great at, could be great at, or needs to do to be great.
This process will inevitably lead to the reduction or demise of some currently offered programs. It simply does not make sense for the university to continue to support programs that it does not excel in providing and that few students demand.
Thankfully, the loss of any single program at the U of S does not mean students will no longer be able to pursue their fields of interest. The nearby University of Regina offers many programs the U of S does not. Additionally, all provinces except Quebec have agreed to charge out-of-province students the same tuition as in-province students.
What is wrong with students going to other provinces in order to get a better education in a certain area than they would at the U of S? This is already the norm in many professional colleges. There is no reason for this policy not to be expanded beyond professional disciplines. This will allow universities to become truly exceptional at providing programs like humanities and education, which are currently offered at almost every university with varying degrees of success.
In order for a program to be high-quality and use its resources efficiently, it needs to have a critical mass of students enrolled. If that number cannot be found at the U of S, students would be better served studying at one of Canada’s many other excellent universities.
Understandably, student relocation may create some accessibility issues. However, such a difficulty is not insurmountable. For example, the provincial or federal government could provide bursaries for students who must cross provincial borders to study in their chosen area.
“TransformUS” is a remarkable opportunity for the university. Yes, some jobs and programs will be lost, but others will see their funding and support grow. If the process succeeds, it will go a long way toward ensuring that the university is spending each dollar received from students and taxpayers in the best interests of achieving excellence in teaching and in discovering, preserving and applying knowledge.
Graphic: Ishmael N. Daro