Volume 29 - Number 15 - Thursday, April 24, 1997

Report finds Quebec's universities in crisis

by Eric Smith

A period when resources available to education are shrinking drastically is the least appropriate time to change the way those resources are allocated.

That's the message the Ministry of Education's working group on university funding heard in submission after submission from representatives of various sectors of the Quebec university community.

And it's a message that the six-member working group passed on to Education Minister Pauline Marois in its report released earlier this month.

McGill political science professor Stephen Bornstein served on the committee, and says he and his colleagues had doubts about their mandate from the start. "Part of our mandate suggested we tell the minister how to spend less money," says Bornstein. "The government wanted the committee to condone its profound cutting in education. But the cuts have been harmful in the past and will continue to be harmful."

Adds Bornstein, "What made it clearest to us that there was a funding crisis is that as of next year, every university in the province will be in the red. [Departing rector of Laval] Michel Gervais made the same statement. We figured Laval was good forever--that it took maximum advantage from the funding formula."

So the first part of the working group's report draws a picture of the state of university funding in Quebec and provides comparisons with other provinces. According to Bornstein, the group found that "these cuts which have been rather systematic have been hitting a university system that was already quite fragile.

"Quebec universities expanded on the cheap in the '60s, '70s and early '80s," says Bornstein. "McGill ran a deficit to be a normal university on subnormal funding. Others ran cheap universities by relying on an enormous number of part-time teachers."

So although the working group proposes no major overhaul of the funding formula, it does recommend some changes to increase the fairness of the system and the stability of anticipated grants.

The second part of the report provides two recommendations with respect to its general mandate and answers 12 specific questions asked by the ministry.
According to ministry spokesperson Yvon St-Amour, Minister Pauline Marois is already evaluating the feasibility of some of the report's recommendations. She is not expected to comment on the report as a whole.

The first recommendation concerns changes to the way new buildings are financed. Interest rate fluctuations can mean increased costs for new buildings, and in past years, the government would provide extra funding to cover that eventuality. But the working group was forced to consider financing questions within the context of a "closed envelope," meaning that should financing costs go up in the near future, they would be subtracted from all universities' operating budgets.

The group calls on the government to quickly come up with a system to smooth out any anticipated extra costs associated with new buildings. It also calls on the government to give approval for new buildings based on its own norms for required space. This recommendation, if implemented, would not harm McGill. Unlike other Quebec universities, it has less space available than government norms allow.

The report also makes a recommendation with respect to funding the rationalization of programs between universities. (Another commission set up by CREPUQ is studying the specific question of rationalization.) Bornstein's group calls on the government to set up a temporary fund to pay the implementation costs of any new schemes that could be shown to save money in the long run.

The first specific question the ministry asked the working group to consider concerns the way the funding formula responds to changes in the size of student populations.

According to Bornstein, there was near unanimity that funding should be stabilized to allow for some change in enrolment.

The report suggests a formula modeled on the Ontario system that would be based on enrolment numbers for a longer period than one year and allow a corridor of two per-cent variation within which funding would remain stable.

As with many of its other recommendations, the working group calls on the ministry to run simulations using mathematical models to determine more precisely the effect of its proposal.

On the question of funding for so-called "short" (certificate and diploma) programs, there was some discussion among the members of the working group. "We were initially divided on that question," says Bornstein. "Some were saying there were too many short programs in Quebec and they should be funded at a lower rate. Others argued that this is the way that Quebec has increased its college education rate."

Although Bornstein says it's troubling that as many as 27% of Quebec undergraduates are in non-bachelor's programs, "change at this point would produce real panic." The working group recommends that short programs be funded at the current level.

The ministry asked the working group to study whether certain non-university-specific programs should be excluded from public funding. The group discussed the possibility of leaving second-language and computer courses to the CEGEPs, but since these courses are often integral to legitimate bachelor programs, it was decided that setting course standards should be left up to the universities.

The working group was also asked to examine the impact of the funding formula on the time it takes Quebec students to graduate and on the province's drop-out rate. The group found factors other than funding accounted for most problems, and it encourages universities to provide better advising, guidance and integration for first-year students.

The group considered the possibility of reflecting the higher costs of the last years of a program in the formula, but decided that the complexity of this option meant it would require further study and simulation before implementation. The group does, however, invite the minister to consider financial incentives for students who complete their programs on time and on budget.

There was no unanimity on the question of increasing the resources available to master's and doctoral programs relative to bachelor's programs.

Although the working group recommends that programs continue to be weighted differentially (in favour of graduate studies) according to the current rules, it suggests that changes be considered again after simulation and when the overall funding climate is stable.

Demographic changes in Quebec are expected to hit regional universities particularly hard. The working group calls on the government to study and invite debate on the role of regional universities. "It must especially be avoided," the report states, "that in the current context by wanting to help some institutions in difficulty, the entire university network be further weakened."

One question from the ministry met with unanimous disapproval. The suggestion that donations and other independent sources of revenue be taken into account in the funding formula was categorically rejected.

"The idea that the ministry would claw back some of the money that universities spend money to raise is idiotic," says Bornstein. And although McGill has benefited more than other Quebec universities from the generosity of alumni and philanthropists, all universities are working to increase their sources of independent funding to make up some of the grant shortfall.

In spite of its recommendations to maintain the funding formula largely as it is now, the working group is "not endorsing the status quo," insists Bornstein. "We are saying the formula needs to be rethought. But it needs to be done calmly and with a perspective of stable funding."

The report has been endorsed by CREPUQ. Director Jacques Bordeleau encourages the government to adopt its recommendations, particularly the two per cent corridor, to allow stable funding in spite of minor fluctuations in student numbers.

"At a time when we're moving into a knowledge economy with both feet," says Bordeleau, "CREPUQ values the fact that the working group thought it wise to alert public authorities and the Quebec population to the dangers imposed on the Quebec university system by the size and the rate of budget compressions."

Here at McGill, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) Phyllis Heaphy echoed Bordeleau's assessment. "The report may appear as a cop-out, in that very little substantive change in the financing formula is actually proposed by the group, but it rests upon the premise of a university system in great danger."

Heaphy says she calculates the impact of the cuts over an 8-year period beginning in 1992-93 to be 33% after inflation. "In effect, we need to provide services to substantially the same number of students at McGill with 33% fewer resources to do so."

"It is my wish that the minister read this report very carefully," she adds.

According to Bornstein, Marois has reacted favourably to the report. "The minister liked it quite a bit," he said. "She was not deliriously happy that we found we can't do anything in the short run. But it may in fact help the ministry in its struggle to get more government funding because a non-partisan study group chaired by a former deputy minister [of science and higher education, Marcel Gilbert] found funding levels to be unacceptable and harmful."

The full text of the report in French is available on the Ministry of Education's web site.

URO Central

Front Page

Contact us

Back issues