University of Saskatchewan and its students were left feeling disappointed with the Saskatchewan government’s March 18 announcement of the 2015–16 provincial budget.
The U of S received a one per cent increase to its operating grant and was asked to provide a one-time holdback of $20 million from the grant. Students were equally displeased with changes to the graduate retention program.
The graduate retention program, while originally providing Saskatchewan post-secondary graduates with $20,000 in refundable tax credit over seven years, had been changed to a non-refundable tax credit to be used over 10 years.
In its initial form, the graduate retention program put cash in students’ hands that they could use for groceries, childcare and other living expenses while making the transition out of student life, said U of S Students’ Union president Max FineDay.
“Students are looking for real support right now,” FineDay said. “The students that I’m hearing from say that they need to benefit from this initiative right now, not when they’re in their mid-life.”
FineDay said the changes to the graduate retention plan came out of nowhere with no opportunity for the USSU to lobby the provincial government.
“Had the USSU been given this opportunity,” FineDay said. “We would have spoken with students not only at the U of S, but we would have partnered with students from across the province and really made the case for this program.”
However, looking at the one per cent increase to the university’s provincial operating grant, FineDay said the U of S not only foresaw the small increase, but should have been prepared. The province’s dropping oil revenues have reached losses of upwards of $661 million in the current fiscal year.
“The university, I’d say, is well prepared. We have those reserves in place in case of financial need. I don’t think the university was too taken aback. I think every public sector in the province was expecting a tight budget and certainly they were right to,” FineDay said.
Despite asking for a two per cent increase to its provincial operating grant, the U of S received an increase of one per cent which brought the grant up to $330 million. In addition to the small increase, the provincial government asked the U of S to hold back $20 million of their grant and to supplement the monies from its reserve funds.
“The government did request that we provide those funds for this year,” university vice-president finance and resources Greg Fowler said, adding that the U of S had prepared the $20-million holdback but was unaware of the one per cent increase.
There are college specific and central reserve funds at the U of S, with the latter providing the university with a security net in the event of unforeseen costs or dips in revenue. The college specific reserves come from money allocated for special projects that have not being entirely used, as is the case with the College of Medicine not using all of the funds provided for its restructuring.
Fowler said the holdback is guaranteed to be a one-time arrangement and that the funds will be needed for the College of Medicine’s restructuring in the future.
“We have the expectation that [the provincial government will] support us as we move forward with our restructuring.”
The decision to use a combination of the university’s central reserves and the College of Medicine’s reserves will have to be brought to the Board of Governors before it is carried out.
Accounted for in the $14.17 billion of expenses in Saskatchewan’s 2015–16 budget are $46.6 million for post-secondary capital projects, $7.9 million in targeted funding for the Health Sciences Building at the U of S and $661.2 million in operating grants and targeted funding for post-secondary institutions.
In addition to the operating grant, $2.2 million has been earmarked to increase the number of medical training, residency and nurse practitioner seats at the U of S.
The U of S received approximately $13 million for its preventative maintenance grant and $7.9 million in targeted funding to complete the renovation of the B-Wing of the Health Sciences Building. A request of $5 million for RenewUS, a campus-wide project to renew the university’s aging buildings, was not fulfilled.
Photo: Jordan Dumba