News | No end in sight for provincial budget cuts

Students disappointed with administration’s reaction

McGill can expect an additional $4 to $12 million in cuts to the provincial government’s 2014-15 operating grant, Provost Anthony Masi announced at an open forum on McGill’s financial situation on October 27. The grant was already $15 million lower than projected in the budget approved by the Board of Governors in April, which also included a $7 million deficit. In the worst-case scenario, McGill’s deficit for the 2014-15 financial year will be $34 million, which amounts to about one third of its current total accumulated deficit, Masi said.

In order to deal with the cuts, McGill has imposed a hiring freeze for administrative and support staff, postponed all non-essential equipment purchases, and stopped all non-emergency unplanned funding allocations. These measures add to those undertaken last year after a $38 million cut to the government’s operating grant, such as a voluntary retirement program, a salary freeze affecting a portion of the administrative and support staff, the non-renewal of contracts, and a reorganization of the workforce.

Although the measures have reduced the workforce and increased the workload for many employees, Masi said that the administration has instituted a secondary review process for all requests for job reclassifications as another cost-cutting measure.

“We have to […] try to understand how we can do without all of those people. They all were doing important jobs at McGill, no one doubts that, but we have a cut we have to live with,” he said.

The government’s operating grant also comes with a mandated 2 per cent reduction in the money allocated to salaries of administrative and support staff. However, it is unclear where exactly this reduction will come from.

In response to a question about how teaching assistantships will be affected, Masi said that changes “have to be on the table.” Most teaching assistants are unionized under AGSEM: McGill’s Teaching Union.

“It’s difficult to say how the cuts will affect our members, but we are certainly wary that McGill might make cuts to our members’ hours,” AGSEM President Justin Irwin told The Daily in an email. “Provost Masi […] really did not give any indication what the impact on our members might be.”

“The administration is charged with representing the interests of everyone in the McGill community, and in being complicit with these cuts has failed in doing so.”

Masi also spoke to the effect of the cuts on students. “It’s likely that these [cuts] will have an effect on students. We can’t increase tuition or fees without a referendum or permission from the government, but that means that some services will have to be cut,” said Masi. “We don’t want it to affect our classrooms, and we don’t want it to affect graduate funding.”

In an email to The Daily, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan noted that cost-cutting measures have a disproportionate effect on students in certain faculties.

“[C]uts to contract academic staff have been a tactic of absorbing budget cuts in the past; however, a cut in this area will translate to the loss of many more courses in faculties that employ contract academic staff widely versus those that do not,” said Stewart-Kanigan.

“[The University’s plan] to deal with the differential impact on students across faculties is also unclear. For example, Arts students have less privately funded internship opportunities than Management students, and would hence be more affected by the loss of government funding.”

No stance against austerity

Despite the magnitude of the cuts and the fact that more cuts are expected in 2015-16, Masi refused to characterize the situation as a “crisis,” distinguishing McGill’s budgetary choices from those of other Quebec universities.

“Since 2009, McGill seems to have chosen to implement budgets that were much more austere than those of other Quebec universities, and […] I think that’s right – we have been much more cautious, and we’re trying not to run up huge deficits. We’re trying to be responsible because we don’t know when things could turn around.”

Other universities such as Université de Montréal and Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) have publicly condemned the cuts; McGill did the same after the 2013 cuts from the Parti Québécois government.

This time, however, McGill has not denounced the cuts to Quebec universities, and has focused its lobbying efforts on demands for “flexibility” in sources of funding, Masi explained. For example, increased tuition for certain international students is one avenue that is being considered.

“We know that the government of Quebec is broke – we’ve actually not complained about that,” said Masi. “We don’t think the system can get much more from the Quebec government, so we’re asking only for flexibility to […] allow us to help ourselves out of this situation.”

“Quebec is burdened by debt, and the government is trying to be responsible in reducing it, so we recognize that,” added Masi. “We’re just being realistic about it.”

In an email to The Daily, SSMU VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barrette expressed concern that the University’s position does not represent the interests of the McGill community.

“I would have liked to see the administration take a firm stance in opposition to the cuts,” she said. “The administration is charged with representing the interests of everyone in the McGill community, and in being complicit with these cuts has failed in doing so.”

Echoing Moustaqim-Barrette’s sentiment, Irwin was not surprised by the administration’s reaction to the cuts.

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that McGill’s response to cuts is one of happy acquiescence,” said Irwin. “The administration wants to lobby for more options as to how to squeeze money out of students, and international students in particular, rather than to oppose these austerity measures.”