Funding formula to change
by Eric Smith
A working group on university financing will be making recommendations to the Ministry of Education at the end of March on how best to distribute shrinking resources across the Quebec university network.
The group was set up in the wake of the report from the Estates General on Education. Part of its mandate is to find ways of modifying the funding formula to better meet goals outlined by the Estates General.
McGill political science professor Stephen Bornstein is a member of the working group. "Originally, this was going to be a major re-examination of the way universities are funded in Quebec. But with exactly a two-month deadline, we know that's unrealistic."
The working group will be focusing instead on "what changes could be introduced to make the formula respond to declining student numbers," said Bornstein.
The current formula adjusts a base funding amount annually according to enrolment numbers, discipline categories, and research grants. Historically, McGill has argued that the formula has worked to its detriment and that it is underfunded relative to other Quebec universities.
Under the current formula, McGill gets less per student than some other Quebec universities. And as a research-intensive institution, it needs to spend more per student than other universities, especially in expensive graduate programs.
None of the working group members are representing their own institutions. "I'm not there as McGill's representative. I'm there to produce a rational solution," said Bornstein. "On the other hand, I'm sensitive to McGill's arguments.
"The only way to get McGill up to fair funding would be to completely restructure the formula. But shrinking funding means it's not politically manageable," said Bornstein. "Any time you change a formula within the limits of a shrinking sum of money, in order for one university to get more, another has to get less."
Competing with McGill's concerns are those of other institutions with more open admissions policies and which have to contend with high drop-out rates and long time-to-completion periods. Although not a problem at McGill, they are a concern raised by the Estates General and one that the Ministry put near the top of the working group's mandate.
"Any money that goes into that will be taken away from somewhere else," said Bornstein. "The competing interests are all legitimate," he added. "Nobody's going to get everything they want."
The group must work within the limits of a "closed envelope." That is, although they will make recommendations on how resources should be distributed, they can't argue that those resources are insufficient.
But concern about the overall level of funding has been paramount in submissions the working group has heard to date. And although universities, unions and associations "know it's not in our mandate," Bornstein said, "they want to make sure we don't legitimize the cuts by taking them as a given without agreeing that overall funding is inadequate."
The ministry has set up a separate working group to look specifically at the question of rationalization of programs. But according to Bornstein, his group "is examining the impact of the current funding formula on rationalization.
"If it makes sense to transfer some PhD programs, we don't want the funding arrangement to serve as an obstacle to that," he said.
Bornstein's experience with government policy runs deeper than mere academic interest. He served in Bob Rae's government as Ontario's delegate to Quebec. "I know how bureaucratic structures operate," he said. "I know what can and can't get done in two months."
Bornstein expects the government will act quickly on the group's recommendations. "Pauline Marois is a very dynamic, very impressive minister," he said. "In all her portfolios, she doesn't simply manage the file. She drives down the field every time she gets the ball."