News | Universities using teaching funds for infrastructure

Report by Quebec profs argues instruction is suffering to pay for maintenance and new buildings

According to a report released last week by the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU), Quebec’s universities are funneling increasingly large amounts of money – initially earmarked for teaching and research – into the maintenance of infrastructure, most notably in the form of building acquisitions and renovations.

The report addresses the financing of Quebec universities’ infrastructure projects, and found that the government subsidy per student earmarked for capital funds – the budget sections dedicated to infrastructure – was getting smaller every year. In ten years, it has gone from $1,935 to $1,535 per student, which amounts to a roughly twenty per cent reduction. For its part, McGill is plagued by $650 million in deferred maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, funding cuts to infrastructure have been compounded by a spike in university enrollment, putting pressure on schools to improve their infrastructure to accommodate more students. Contrary to predictions made by the Ministry of Education in 2000, Quebec universities have seen a sharp rise in enrollment over the past decade. There are about 23.4 per cent more full-time students enrolled in Quebec universities now then there were twelve years ago. At McGill alone, there were over four thousand more students attending full-time in 2009 than in 2002.

“Over the past 12 years, the total growth in the student population can be compared to a university about twice the size of the Université de Montréal appearing in the system,” said Martin Maltais, a professor at Télé-université, UQAM’s correspondance school, and one of the report’s researchers.

To offset the costs of new students, universities have had to dip into their operational budgets.

Diverting money away from teaching and research has been a standard practice for university administrations for the past twenty years, according to Michel Umbriaco, the lead researcher on the report, in an article for Le Devoir. However, the extent of this practice has reached a critical point in the past four or five years, with universities paying for nearly fifty per cent of their infrastructure costs with money originally intended for operational budgets. The report, which was sent to education minister Line Beauchamp, recommended that the province place restrictions how much money universities siphon off from their operational budgets.

Diverted funds have eroded the quality of instruction in Quebec, according the report’s authors. “Now, we have universities where people are completing entire bachelor degrees without ever actually seeing a professor,” said Maltais.

Joël Pedneault, a McGill undergrad and Vice-Secretary General of the Quebec Students Roundtable (QSR), a provincial student lobbying group of which SSMU is a member, believes that governments should step in to fill funding gaps.

“The main problem is that schools have to make these decisions – between instruction and infrastructure, between what type of maintenance…while the government has made a conscious political choice to decrease taxation on the private sector, which could provide some of the necessary revenue,” he said. “Obviously the problem is multi-faceted, but the bottom line is that schools are under-financed.”

The FQPPU’s report is the second in a three part series they are producing in an effort to explain why, despite the Ministry of Education’s increased investment in sectors of post-secondary education, universities have seemed to suffer from chronic underfunding.

The first report addressed the financing of the universities’ operational budgets. It found that the ministry had nearly doubled its investment in the operational budgets of universities in Quebec over the past ten years.