News  Universities using teaching dollars for construction

Quebec profs report recommends more transparent financial practices

Quebec universities are funneling more and more teaching dollars into massive infrastructure projects with no oversight – a bad use of public money and a blow to students and faculty, according to a new report by a Quebec professors’ federation.

Between 1998 and 2009, there was a 162 per cent increase in funding for capital projects – new buildings, renovations, equipment, and books, mostly – that universities siphoned off from other parts of their budgets, such as faculty salaries and student services, the report says. That amounts to $167 million.

The 426-page report, authored by the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU), comes just a month after McGill and other schools publicly decried the provincial government’s $124-million cut to university funding, which administrators say will hinder core functions like teaching and research.

While the FQPPU oppose the cuts too, their report is the latest salvo in a fight over how Quebec universities spend their money. Administrators recently claimed the province’s universities are underfunded by $850 million, mostly due to low tuition, while student and faculty groups say schools have enough money but are spending too much on unnecessary building projects.

FQPPU President Max Roy concedes that there are good reasons for increased spending on university infrastructure. “The government isn’t giving enough money for capital expenses,” he said in French during a phone interview with The Daily.

Between 1998 and 2009, enrolment in Quebec universities jumped 23.8 per cent, forcing schools to make room for students by buying up real estate. IT costs have also skyrocketed over the past decade.

But Roy says he doesn’t trust universities to determine which infrastructure projects are most important. “All administrations are going to say that projects are prioritized and urgent,” he said.

In their report, the FQPPU calls for the creation of a university council to review spending choices and make recommendations to the provincial government. “We’re not saying that administrators are acting in bad faith,” Roy said. “But we’re saying if they’re acting in good faith, they’ll accept greater transparency around their decision-making.”

The Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) went further last week, calling for a freeze on university construction until an external review of the schools’ finances is done.

McGill, the eye of the storm

No one in the McGill administration was prepared to comment on the report by press time.

McGill alone accounts for 22 per cent of Quebec universities’ infrastructure expenditures, largely thanks to its huge medical faculty. Indeed, of the 18 universities studied in the report, the four with medical faculties – Laval, Sherbrooke, Université de Montreal, and McGill – account for $3.6 billion of the $6.1 billion in capital expenses across the system.

The abundance of old buildings on campus makes maintenance expensive, too. 33 per cent of McGill’s total space is in buildings erected before 1940, against 5 per cent for the other Quebec universities. In its most recent budget, McGill estimated that it has at least $647 million in “urgent” deferred maintenance work.

Roy says he wants proof. “They have to prove it – they have to put it on paper,” he said. “There is a major transparency problem. We think there are projects that are not justified, but we can’t tell which ones.”

FEUQ President Martine Desjardins attended a roundtable meeting on higher education with McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum last week, and said Munroe-Blum bristled at calls for oversight on university spending. “She kept saying, ‘Just keep giving us money and we’ll just decide how we spend it’,” Desjardins said in a phone interview.

This fiscal year, McGill plans to spend $46.7 million on construction and renovation, out of a $717.4- million budget.

In competition for students, winners unclear

The FQPPU report also calls for less competition between universities over scarce provincial funding, much of which comes on a per-student basis.

Desjardins, who agrees with FQPPU’s assessment, believes that the roughly $7,300 subsidy Quebec universities receive per full-time student is driving schools to misspend money on buildings and promotional campaigns. “If you have more and more students inside your buildings, the government is giving you more and more money. This is why we see this competition,” she said.

“We think it’s a good thing to have competition. It makes sure the quality of the universities is high enough. But it’s going to another level. We’re having a lot of expenses for publicity and construction that we don’t need.”