Bur­den of ad­min­is­tra­tion and du­pli­ca­tion driv­ing up uni­ver­sity costs

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT - Jim Guy

The prov­ince of Nova Sco­tia now calls it­self “Canada’s uni­ver­sity cap­i­tal.” It’s part of a pub­lic­ity cam­paign to at­tract stu­dents to a de­clin­ing lo­cal aca­demic mar­ket. But crit­ics read it dif­fer­ently: they say that go­ing to uni­ver­sity in Nova Sco­tia does in­deed take a lot of pri­vate stu­dent cap­i­tal, and that it takes an enor­mous amount of gov­ern­ment cap­i­tal to sus­tain the cen­tral or­ga­ni­za­tions and op­er­a­tions of uni­ver­si­ties.

With less than a mil­lion peo­ple served by 11 de­gree-grant­ing in­sti­tu­tions, a gal­lop­ing pro­vin­cial deficit fore­cast at $525.2 mil­lion in the cur­rent year and a debt ex­ceed­ing $12 bil­lion, Nova Sco­tians are in­creas­ingly con­cerned about where their money is go­ing. One ques­tion that of­ten comes for­ward is whether we have too many com­pet­i­tive post­sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions chas­ing too few stu­dents.

A grow­ing num­ber of tax­pay­ers are ask­ing whether we can af­ford this so-called uni­ver­sity “sys­tem” of ours. Is it re­ally a sys­tem? Wouldn’t there be ef­fi­cien­cies in a sys­tem that would in fact re­duce costs? Wouldn’t a uni­ver­sity sys­tem en­able more ef­fi­cient ad­min­is­tra­tion of de­gree pro­grams and uni­ver­sity ser­vices?

Nova Sco­tia’s uni­ver­si­ties charge the sec­ond high­est stu­dent fees in the coun­try. They don’t do this as a sys­tem; they do it as in­di­vid­u­ally op­er­ated, com­pet­i­tive in­sti­tu­tions,

Is the heavy com­pe­ti­tion among the var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties in the prov­ince the best dy­namic and in­deed the best way to pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity of an ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able ed­u­ca­tion to our Nova Sco­tia stu­dents and the more than 20,000 who study here from out­side the prov­ince?

Nova Sco­tia is one of only two prov­inces that does not have a pro­vin­cial uni­ver­sity sys­tem. In­stead, the de­gree-grant­ing in­sti­tu­tions are in­de­pen­dently ad­min­is­tered and funded, es­sen­tially by stu­dent tu­ition, pri­vate en­dow­ments, fed­eral and pro­vin­cial grants, in­sti­tu­tional re­search grants and other pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

Each Nova Sco­tia uni­ver­sity has be­come a po­lit­i­cal con­stituency in its own right, pro­ject­ing it­self and its sur­vival as unique. But many de­gree pro­grams are in fact du­pli­cated and repli­cated at great cost to both stu­dents and gov­ern­ments.

As ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, Nova Sco­tia’s uni­ver­si­ties are rea­son­ably com­pa­ra­ble. Broadly speak­ing, their cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tions pro­vide sim­i­lar ser­vices be­cause all post-secondary in­sti­tu­tions in the prov­ince are fairly ho­moge­nous in terms of or­ga­ni­za­tion, ac­tiv­i­ties and ser­vices pro­vided.

Yet each year ad­min­is­tra­tors pre­dictably de­mand a greater share of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment bud­get. This year fi­nan­cial de­mand for ed­u­ca­tion in Nova Sco­tia, in­clud­ing uni­ver­si­ties, is about $2 bil­lion. This de­mand is made as the gov­ern­ment faces a pro­jected $700-mil­lion deficit for 2010-11.

Last month’s Maclean’s mag­a­zine asked where all that money is go­ing to sup­port uni­ver­si­ties. Is it go­ing into the class­room? Are tu­itions de­clin­ing? Are more lo­cal stu­dents be­ing served? Can every­one who wants to go to uni­ver­sity af­ford the high tu­ition? Are stu­dents able to com­plete their ed­u­ca­tion as they face the long-term fi­nan­cial bur­den of go­ing to a uni­ver­sity?

Maclean’s points di­rectly at ad­min­is­tra­tions for ratcheting up the cost of op­er­at­ing each uni­ver­sity at their own dis­cre­tion. The pay struc­tures of uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents, vice-pres­i­dents, deans and direc­tors are now anal­o­gous to pri­vate CEOs but are re­mu­ner­ated largely with pub­lic, gov­ern- ment funds. Their pack­ages in­clude base salaries, an­nual bonuses, spe­cial bonuses, travel al­lowances, liv­ing al­lowances, golden hand­shakes and sup­ple­men­tal pen­sions.

Th­ese types of re­mu­ner­a­tion are not trans­par­ent to stu­dents or mem­bers of the pub­lic who foot much of the bill. Re­mu­ner­a­tive pack­ages are set by uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors them­selves, as are their spending and ex­pens­ing prac­tices, which are of­ten well be­low pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity.

A Stat­sCan study which looked at how uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tions are set­ting their pri­or­i­ties found a de­clin­ing trend in ser­vic­ing the needs of teach­ing fac­ulty. Uni­ver­sity teach­ing has fallen down the pri­or­ity list. In short, less money is reach­ing the class­room and in­stead is end­ing up as dis­cre­tionary in the cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Many of th­ese ad­min­is­tra­tions are con­sum­ing more than 50 per cent of the uni­ver­sity’s to­tal bud­get. This leads to the ques­tion: Are our post-secondary in­sti­tu­tions op­er­at­ing as teach­ing and re­search fa­cil­i­ties serv­ing the needs of stu­dents or are they now pri­mar­ily ad­min­is­tra­tions serv­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive agen­das?

The Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­sity Busi­ness Of­fi­cers re­ported that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tions are pre­dictably grow­ing by up to four times the inflation rate. Ex­pen­di­tures on ar­eas cen­tral to un­der­grad­u­ate teach­ing and stu­dent life have no­tice­ably de­clined, neg­a­tively af­fect­ing li­brary ser­vices, stu­dent ser­vices and in­struc­tion.

In view of the pro­jected and pre­dictable an­nual growth of uni­ver­sity op­er­a­tions there is a need to con­sider what economies in the cen­tral ex­pen­di­tures of uni­ver­si­ties are pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially among those post-secondary in­sti­tu­tions pro­vid­ing sim­i­lar ser­vices.

In the fi­nal anal­y­sis the over­head costs of run­ning large uni­ver­sity bu­reau­cra­cies are sub­tly passed on to stu­dents, thus weak­en­ing ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties and cre­at­ing long-term debt for many of them.

In the ab­sence of a uni­ver­sity sys­tem in the true sense of the term, what can be done to re­duce the enor­mous costs of run­ning 11 de­gree-grant­ing in­sti­tu­tions in com­pe­ti­tion for a de­clin­ing stu­dent pop­u­la­tion?

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