Commentary  Funding allocation should be transparent

Is McGill misusing government grants?

From the dwindling Canadian dollar to widespread austerity measures in Quebec, to crunched budgets at universities like McGill, money is tight these days. But at McGill, the problem isn’t just that the university doesn’t have access to enough money, but that the allocation of funds it does have has been done non-transparently and in a legal grey area. It hardly takes running a fine-toothed comb through McGill’s financial actions in the past couple of months to see that the financial struggles most detrimental to students have only been exacerbated by the actions of McGill’s most powerful.

One area where McGill has not allocated government funds transparently is the budget of the Student Services unit, which houses resources like the Student Health Service, the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), the Mental Health Service, and the Counselling Service. Although the unit was already unable to meet student demand, the McGill administration further reduced its funding this year by cutting the yearly $112,000 transfer to the unit and charging it increased overhead charges. This left the unit with two main funding sources: student fees and a yearly $1.8 million grant from the Quebec government designated specifically for “services to students.”

A university is nothing without students, and student needs must come first.

However, at a Senate meeting last April, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens informed student senators that 25 per cent of that grant was being allocated to Athletics, and, given McGill’s tight budget, he left open the possibility that the remaining money from the grant Could also go to units other than Student Services – potentially including things like the libraries or the office of the Dean of Students. Similarly, the administration absorbed a $1.2 million provincial grant earmarked for the support of students with disabilities into its general budget, failing to provide an account of how the grant was used. This angered student senators at the meeting, especially as the OSD was suffering budget cuts and its funding under a proposed new government grant model was uncertain at the time. This ambiguity as to what McGill considers “services to students” or “support of students with disabilities” leaves unclear the legality of the University’s usage of the grants. Further, as the University’s contribution to Student Services is reduced, the unit will have to use up more of its surplus, which consist mostly of fees collected from student pockets.

For all its talk of financial struggles, McGill seems to be in a secure enough position to find funds for large executive pay expenditures. Most recently, it surfaced that McGill had paid former principal Heather Munroe-Blum over $750,000 in the two years following the end of her term. It has also allegedly given out performance-based salary increases to executives in violation of provincial law. Again, whether or not McGill’s allocation of funding was illegal or not, it was definitely not transparent.

Like many institutions that rely on public funding, McGill is under significant financial strain, and for that I feel I should express some sympathy. However, the above examples illustrate a common theme in McGill’s budgeting practices that, at a time when government budget cuts make transparency and community involvement in budgetary decisions all the more important, is frankly worrisome. With months-long wait times for mental health services and increasing numbers of students relying on OSD services, it is time for the University to re-evaluate its priorities. A university is nothing without students, and student needs must come first.