Budget picture brightening

Budget picture brightening McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 01
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > September 7, 2000 > Budget picture brightening

Budget picture brightening

McGill's battle-worn administrative assistants, weary of helping the heads of their units figure out where to trim their budgets year after year after year, probably didn't believe the news the first time they heard it.

But there it is, in black and white, figuring prominently in McGill's budget for the 2000-2001 fiscal year -- "There is NO overall budget cut to all units."

In fact, the University is starting to spend some extra bucks in targeted areas. More than $8.5 million is reserved for boosting salary levels. More than $4 million will be spent on upgrading the University's information technology and systems infrastructure. Close to $3 million will be spent on hiring new faculty, $2 million will support a new McGill-wide teaching prize and the hiring of more teaching assistants, and more than $1 million will go to the libraries.

Although the funding picture is brightening -- the government has pledged to stop the cuts to higher education and is even kicking some money back into the system -- McGill's decision to spend in new areas without making more cuts will result in an anticipated operating deficit of $6.5 million.

Principal Bernard Shapiro says the notion of an operating deficit doesn't sit well with some members of the University's board of governors.

"The Board has divided itself into two on this subject. There are those who believe strongly that we must be fiscally responsible, that we have to stay within the limits of what we can afford to do. Then there are those who believe that our situation is tied to years of underfunding and that [operating deficits] is a government problem, not our problem."

Shapiro himself has conflicting views on the subject. "[Both sides] are right." The principal worries about the prospect of leaving his successor a legacy of deficits to tidy up, but believes that McGill has to start spending more money to sustain the quality of its academic offerings.

Things are improving, though. Quebec City and the universities are negotiating a new funding formula that should pump millions of dollars back into higher education. There is a catch. To have access to a significant chunk of that money, universities must first agree to a new "contrat de performance," an "entente" with the government that outlines a series of performance indicators upon which the schools will be judged.

So far, the government has rejected the first "ententes" that have been sent its way by other universities. McGill recently submitted its initial draft, a project that Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet and his staff laboured on over the summer.

McGill's pledges include: to increase the number of full-time students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels; to maintain the levels of graduate students at about 20 per cent of the whole student body; to increase the number of courses taught by regular faculty to 75 per cent from 68 per cent (within a decade); to improve the student-to-teacher ratio; to draw 25 per cent of its student body from other countries; to achieve a zero-debt situation by 2002-2003; and to develop a survey system whereby students, from the time they apply to the time they graduate, regularly tell the University what they think about their McGill experience.

Will the government accept McGill's proposed "entente"? Shapiro suspects there will be plenty of to-ing and fro-ing, a prospect that opens the door for greater community input into what McGill ought to list in the "entente." Both the Board and Senate will be consulted.

On the whole, Shapiro says, "there is room for optimism" for the first time in a very long time. Apart from the prospect of better funding from Quebec City, there is also a host of programs such as the Canada Research Chairs and the Canada Foundation for Innovation that are helping universities hire and support the work of new professors.

But these opportunities also present some risks. The CRC and CFI programs, along with Quebec initiatives aimed at attracting more scholars with high-tech skills, steer universities in terms of who they should hire; the programs are largely geared towards professors in medicine, engineering and science.

Shapiro recognizes this. "We have to do what we can to strike the appropriate balance. These programs do skew the situation. It puts to the side a whole other part of human experience that is embedded in the social sciences and humanities. I think that's a dreadful mistake because these are the values that are intrinsic to whether or not a democratic society will work properly.

"People worry about the influence industry has on universities but government priorities have a far greater impact on us. I think this is an example of how government policy can undermine universities' values in many ways."

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