Burden of administration and duplication driving up university costs
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?