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Bad investments, good investments

New cost-cutting measure a U.S. export

The predicament
Facing an announcement from the provincial government that Quebec universities have to slash $124 million from their budgets by April, it is only fair that most of these universities would begin to re-evaluate the way their programs are run. As many students have heard, Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi announced the decision to cut up to 100 Arts undergraduate classes from the curriculum; however, instead of saving money, the decision serves to rearrange teaching staff in the faculty.

But Quebec universities are not the only ones suffering from budget cuts; they appear to be a nationwide trend. Prominent examples are the University of Regina, the University of Guelph, and the University of Toronto, which have also felt the pressure of slashing their budgets. In fact, this is not the first time in recent history that the University of Toronto has implemented budget cuts. In 2010, in order to cope with a projected budget deficit of $35.7 million, U of T tried to close its Comparative Literature program without consulting students and faculty.
The fields from which these universities are choosing to make cuts demonstrates the strange contradiction that institutions face today between their values and their pockets. In particular, recent strategies seem to pinpoint areas to trim from the university based on economic instead of intrinsic value.

But it seems that recent cost-cutting strategies are not coming from within. In particular, the University of Regina and the University of Guelph are working with Robert C. Dickeson, an American consultant behind the book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. In doing so, these universities are effectively allowing the implementation of a U.S.-based cost-cutting strategy within Canadian universities. According to the book’s own description, it “offers a proven step-by-step approach to reallocating resources in tough times,” in light of the “current economic concerns affecting colleges and universities.” ‬‬‬‬The program aims at a re-evaluation of the whole university scheme, from academic departments, to athletics, to parking space, according to a Globe and Mail article written on January 4th, 2013, entitled “No department is safe as universities employ U.S. cost-cutting strategy.” These developments have caught the attention of academic staff and raised concerns. The University of Regina’s English department is concerned that, after the evaluations are implemented, it will have fewer staff to teach lectures the following year. The University of Guelph has already assembled a task force to assess the “importance” of each of the university’s services and departments, but it consists of faculty and staff and only two students, one graduate and one undergraduate. This is problematic as it is not representative of the student population of almost 22,000, a fact that concerns the student body, according to The Canon, the University of Guelph’s online campus-wide message board.
One of the biggest concerns, in the midst of all these discussions on budget cuts, is that Arts courses are going to get the worst of it. ‬‬

An economic perspective
When asked about the proposed cost-cutting plan, Rohan Dutta, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at McGill, assured me that when dealing with these imposed budget cuts, while some sort of cost-cutting has to happen, exactly how it does happen is up to the university. He outlined the ideal method of dealing with cuts: “What you would like to do is to meet this reduction in budget, but you’d like to do it in a way that satisfies whatever goals the university has.”

This involves two steps. First, an institution has to identify what its goals are; second, it has to see how it will go about achieving them in view of the cuts. These fixed goals could be ensuring a particular degree of enrolment, or investing a certain amount in departments that guarantee the most enrolment. Maybe a university is concerned with its historical identity, or ensuring that the learning environment is also a safe one. “Given these goals, the big question is how much do you cut from each of these units? […] [From] a standard microeconomics approach[…]you want to make sure that … when you’ve finally reached the end of the cost-cutting plan, the different department should give you the same return,” Dutta says.

In Dutta’s view, whatever strategy anyone comes up with, someone’s going to end up complaining when the dust settles. “We’re not in a scenario where we have this utopian option…. Given that, the proposed cost-cutting seems better to me than implementing some adhoc measure of, say, a thousand dollars off every unit, but can this proposal be made better? My answer would be yes.”

The solution is simple; you need information about each department, focusing on its pros and cons. If a university were to implement a general blanket cut, for example, it would be ignoring this information. “Enrolment, for instance, is telling you which department undergrads are interested in. If you ignore that information, presumably what you are looking at is a situation where undergrads would probably choose a different university,” Dutta explains.

The first step is figuring out the values of each department, in order to incorporate that information into the decisions that go along with cost cutting.

Dutta was ambivalent about the degree to which Arts classes at universities across the country would bear the brunt of this strategy, saying that “it’s all conditional on the goal of the university. If the arts are a deep part of the stated goal of the university, then it will not necessarily be the case that they’ll be hurt.” What will most probably happen, in this case, is a reallocating of the resources within the faculty.

The problem that exists at the forefront of this cutting strategy is the notion of ranking departments based on their values, and what each one uniquely offers the learning experience at the university, “Once you fix this notion of ranking, then the cost-cutting method is the best way to do it. So the real problem is how do we agree on [what] McGill or any other Canadian university stands for? How do we attach value to the different things?”

On the issue of Manfredi’s announcement, Dutta insists that the backlash was to be expected. “Can you imagine a scenario where there [would] not be an uproar? The real question is that, of all the things that would create uproar, is this a good one? It’s very possible that to figure that out actually requires…this thing [to pan] out over three or four years.”

A humanities perspective
Mary DeCoste, an associate professor of Italian Studies at the University of Guelph, one of the more outspoken members of Guelph’s College of Arts, acknowledges that her program may be vulnerable, and sees many flaws in the proposed strategy. “We haven’t been sold on the effectiveness of this process,” she asserted in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

Vancouver Island University (VIU) is also implementing a similar program, dubbed the “Summative Program Assessment Process.” According to the resulting report published in 2012, around 130 VIU programs were evaluated, and the future prospects did not look good for the fine arts and performing arts. The report cites that, among other things, it will suspend a Bachelor of Arts (BA) program in Music (while a two-year diploma in Music will be maintained). Furthermore, a BA Minor in Theatre will be cancelled and lumped together into a broader BA in Visual Arts.

Concerns over Arts classes are also shared by the McGill community, as is the reality that universities are shifting their gazes toward more profitable departments. Michelle Hartman, an associate professor of Arabic Literature in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill, admitted in an interview with The Daily that “we’ve seen the priorities of the University in the way funding gets allocated, and in the attitude toward different faculties on the part of the upper administration over time.” The universities’ rhetoric, she went on to say, is very much tied to placing value on how much money is connected to certain spaces in the university. Universities have an idea that if a department or unit is more profitable than another, then it is more valuable, “… which isn’t the traditional way we as a society viewed the role of a university or higher education.”

In terms of funding allocated to the professors themselves, Hartman declares that there is very little money granted to Arts professors in the university for research, “and decreasingly so.” The funding instead comes from external sources, primarily from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which has, unfortunately, also re-organized its internal allocation of funds as well. “We see less funding for […] projects that might be typically thought of as humanities,” Hartman states, classifying them as “less income-generating projects.”

On the subject of the U.S.-based cost-cutting strategy, and the “program prioritization” it propagates, Hartman thinks of what the administration and faculty think education does, and what they value in education. To her, the kind of learning experience that offers critical thinking, ways of looking at the world, and exposure in particular to rigorous intellectual ideas, are the ones that can’t be quantified in monetary terms. “To go through departments and stack them up by how much they generate money (among other things) is antithetical to the kinds of processes that we’re trying to encourage and teach at the university […] I can’t really understand a system that lines it up by money, and cuts things, and we’ve seen that happen around the world.”

When asked about the security of her own position teaching a relatively small seminar class (Politics and Poetics in Arabic Literature), as well as other professors in similar positions, in view of Manfredi’s announcements, Hartman replied, “The enterprise of working with 100 students a semester in one class is very different from working with thirty, and while I understand that many people see that working with thirty students is a very privileged position, […] it all depends on the way you want to teach, and what you want to teach.” She can spend more time with her students, for example, when she gives out writing assignments, giving each student their own personal feedback. “… I can’t do that in a class of 100 students. I could train a graduate student […] but that’s different than [doing it] myself [with] the experience I have coming out of literary studies,” she said.

The sad thing is that, after being a tenured professor for fifteen years, and teaching at McGill since 2002, Hartman admits that literary studies was seen as more valuable in the past than today, “I see [it] being valued less and less…in the…new ways we see governments and universities talk about restructuring education.”