Budget cuts worse than expected

by Paul Gott

The recent budget cuts announced by the Quebec government are taking a major bite out of university budgets. But the recent flurry of media reports of a possible sharing of resources between McGill and Concordia are premature.

"There's no talk of any sort of merger. We could possibly pool some of our administrative resources such as the libraries, but at this point there's no question of any sort of academic merger," says Phyllis Heaphy, McGill's Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance).

"At this point, we're holding discussions to see if there's any common ground, but there are no formal proposals on the table."

McGill has been preparing for government cuts, but the extent of the reductions was greater than expected.

"We haven't received any sort of official government notification as yet," says Heaphy. "But from what we understand, the total cuts will be in the range of $100 million. Under the normal course of events, this would mean we will be cut by approximately $14 million."

This is about seven per cent of the money that the University receives from the province. This year's provincial grant to McGill was $203 million.

"We had already planned on a cut of $12 million in our preliminary budget which was presented to the deans and directors in November," says Heaphy. "But the situation is very difficult because everyone was having a tough time making the cuts and now we have to slice an additional $2 million."

The University's task has been made more difficult because the government has so far refused all efforts to give it more control over its own finances.

"We've requested that the government give us some flexibility with regard to tuition fees, or some sort of mandatory retirement," says Heaphy. "But we've had no response. Nothing. The door is shut at the moment and there's no indication that will change in the near future."

As a result, the University is offering full-time personnel a special early retirement package between April 15 and May 15. The package offers candidates five per cent of their salary for each year worked plus an additional three to nine months pay.

While the University is looking to cut its payroll, it is also seeking to maintain current enrolment levels. This year, McGill was the only Quebec university which didn't suffer a drop in enrolment. Some faculties in other institutions lost up to 10 per cent of their students.

"The rumours that we might be trying to drastically lower enrolment that were going around earlier in the year were completely unfounded," says Heaphy.

"If we did see a significant drop in student numbers over the next couple of years we'd be in real trouble, because we'd lose that percentage of our government grant."

The immediate challenge for the University is to maintain its academic quality while reducing services."We can't kid ourselves--we can't do everything we did in the past," says Heaphy. "Cuts could lead to larger class sizes, or more of a burden for professors, and we obviously can't offer every course on every subject in every semester. But we have been planning as carefully as possible to maintain all our academic standards."

And the Universty's job may get even more difficult in future years as the Quebec government continues to trim its budget.

"Nothing leads us to believe that this is the end of the cuts, but we're dealing with them one year at a time," says Heaphy. "We don't even know what our exact subsidy will be for '96-'97 until the end of the academic year. We can make educated guesses, and we should normally be within $1 million of the right amount. At least we hope we are--with this system you can never be absolutely sure."