Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Recap of GFC discussion on funding and budget

The public debate that has taken place in the last two weeks regarding university funding and our budget prompted a discussion at GFC on Monday in answer to questions submitted by a GFC member. This is an overview of what was covered. Hopefully it will help bring further clarity to the situation, clear up some misinformation and answer some remaining questions.

Carl and I have been working very hard behind the scenes in conversation with government about funding. Since October there have been 30 meetings between government and senior leadership. It was a strategic decision to have these conversations directly with government, not through the media. I can tell you that they are listening.

In those conversations we have compared the data of two years of 0% increases compared to five years of 6% increases. The CARI presidents—of the Campus Alberta research-intensive universities, Calgary, Athabasca, Lethbridge and us—met with government. That was a very positive meeting, but of course no promises were made by government. We have been clear about what we need: a 4% minimum increase to maintain, the need for stability in funding, and the need for planning on a three-year cycle.

Quiet advocacy does work. It is important for us to remain united. In my experience, hand wringing in public can have unintended consequences and rarely works. During the last two weeks the public debate has forced us to get stuck in the here and now and has derailed the story from the needed investment in the future. We may have inadvertently sent a message to the public that the quality of a U of A education is low. Let me give you an example.

Among the emails I received directly, one was from an alum who lives in the interior of British Columbia. He told me that he’d been looking forward to sending his daughter to U of A, but—having heard the stories about the budget—he now wondered if the U of A would be the right choice. I think we’d all agree that this isn’t the message we want to send. How many people are thinking that and not writing it? Advocacy from all of you geared toward the value in investing is very valuable. An example of this is the outstanding essay in the Journal by Ryan Dunch, the chair of East Asian studies, about value of an arts education.

Thoughtful arguments—backed up with data—about our positive impact on the province, that provide proof that we are being good stewards of public funds, are what works.

I was asked if the Edmonton Journal story resulting from my meeting with the editorial board reflected my views on the impact of years of budget pressures. I was not asked about the budget tightening since 2009, but about budgetary pressures for the next academic year, and how I thought that might affect student experience at the University of Alberta. So I reminded those in the room that while we don't yet know the details of our level of provincial funding for this coming year, which will be announced Feb. 9, we remain committed to doing everything we possibly can do to assure a high quality education as is evidenced by the way we prioritized our funding during the years of 6% increases. 

So to your point:  The article reflects my views on our long-term commitment to our students, but does not accurately capture my sentiments about our funding since the year 2009. You can read more about the Edmonton Journal editorial board discussion here.

I’m well aware of the major decisions made across the university over the past three years and the impact these decisions have had on the academy and the individuals who have been affected. No new investment in the Campus Alberta grant for the past two years has been difficult to accommodate. Inflationary pressures, salary increases and other pressures mean that we’ve had to make budget re-allocations—but throughout it all, we have done our utmost to invest in what is most important in the delivery of our mission—our people. In our budget processes we work closely with the Deans, who are best positioned to make final budget decisions within their faculties. These decisions are never easy. Paramount in this decision-making is to do everything possible to protect the quality of the educational experience.

Even with the impact of the budget re-allocations, I strongly believe that we continue to provide our students with an outstanding educational experience.

Let us not lose sight of the high level of provincial investment in the university between 2005 and 2010 when we saw annual 6% increases coupled with significant investment in support of enrolment growth. We were able to invest heavily in the professoriate, support staff, and key infrastructure to continue to enhance quality.

I then went through a few slides of data and we provided a handout that answers some of the current questions. The slides show:
1- We have the highest per student funding of any university in Canada.

2- Our staff headcount. We have had major growth in every level of staff since 2002-03.

3- The percentage of the university’s operating budget from tuition has declined steadily. It has decreased from 26.5% in ’02-03 to 21.8% this year.

4- University dollars invested in scholarships and bursaries have increased steadily year-over-year.

It’s important to have these facts in mind—and at hand—when making the case for further investment. Our discussions with government are data-driven and fact-based—and forward-looking.
I was asked which indicators I, and the leadership team, consider related to quality. I noted that all the data just shown is available online in the databook on the Statistical Analysis website; it is all public information. My Dare to Discover report cards contain a number of quality metrics, including student/faculty ratio and funding, and these are also online. The NSSE data is showing noticeable changes. The NSSE survey is interesting because it is on of the rare surveys that allows comparisons between institutions. According to that, our students perceive that the quality of a University of Alberta education is going up in fact. There are many factors we consider. Among them: 
  • Levels of student support through scholarships and bursaries;
  • Investment in new buildings and infrastructure;
  • Investment in information technology, including the upgrading of smart classrooms;  
  • The quality of our libraries; and  
  • The number and type of prestigious awards such as the 3M teaching award.

It is true that, after successive improvements in faculty-to-student ratios—that that ratio ticked up this year. This is one reason for our continuous conversations with government leaders, in which we work to convince them of the vital importance of increasing investment in the University of Alberta.

I was asked why I did not talk about long-term impact of successive years of flat grants. My role as president is to protect and enhance the reputation of the university. I must remind people of the continuing excellence of the University of Alberta. One of my goals in talking to the editorial board of the Edmonton Journal was to broaden the discussion—not the occasion to be drawn into a lengthy and negative conversation about our budget challenges.

We must be sure that our public discussions about the University of Alberta do not revolve exclusively around issues of funding, or over time, this will become an attribute of the U of A that outweighs all others:  not our excellent faculty contributions, not our student achievements, not our ability to have a positive impact on the province, the nation, and the world … but instead, the university with the budget problem.

I was asked why we aren’t talking about the impact of budgets on the university’s ability to attract and retain talent. I assure all of you that every conversation with government includes this message. I agree this is an example that works.

An example of positive advocacy that really worked was the student-led I Love Alberta Grads campaign. Those signs were all over Alberta; there was one in my yard when I moved here. Funding for post-secondary education went from being a non-existent issue to a top priority because of public awareness.

There is reason for optimism. We are receiving positive messages from our new premier concerning the importance of education to this province – including the role of the humanities and social sciences. It will be a continuing priority for the vice-presidents and me to work with the government to ensure corresponding funding materializes as soon as possible.

Thank you for your passion for and dedication to this institution.

Indira Samarasekera, OC
President and Vice-Chancellor 

1 comment:

  1. Madam President,

    I would like to ask three question related to your recap of GFC discussion on funding and budget.

    1. You write: "The CARI presidents-of the Campus Alberta research-intensive universities, Calgary, Athabasca, Lethbridge and us-met with government." According to MacLeans categories, Lethbridge is a primarily undergraduate school and Athabasca does not show up in any of their university categories, research intensive or otherwise. What do you mean by a research intensive university?

    2. In the linked handout, you write: "3. How does total operating funding including tuition revenue per student compare to peer institutions? In 2009-10, the University of Alberta had $25,540 per FTE. This compares to $22,880 at UBC and $22,210 at University of Toronto." Later your write: "1- We have the highest per student funding of any university in Canada." I wonder how the general public will interpret this information. In university rankings (widely read whatever their worth), our school regularly places behind both UBC and Toronto, and we are not even third in Canada. The quoted numbers indicate that although we spend more money per FTE we are less efficient and still inferior to less costly schools. Is this the message that you want to convey to the government?

    3. You write "The NSSE survey is interesting because it is on of the rare surveys that allows comparisons between institutions. According to that, our students perceive that the quality of a University of Alberta education is going up in fact." According to what I see at the NSSE home page, the survey is performed on voluntary basis in an essentially uncontrolled way and thus the results must be interpreted with caution. On line (uastatistics) we see NSSE benchmark numbers for 2006, 2008 and 2011. Over time, some of the raw numbers are up but so are similar numbers for other schools. Some schools started scoring much higher years ago. Could you explain how to interpret NSSE numbers in support of your claim about the quality of UofA education quoted above?


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