University resilient in face of budget challenges

Watch the full campus forum

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta is a resilient, creative organization that effectively uses its resources to benefit all Albertans, and will continue to do so despite current budget challenges, said acting-provost Martin Ferguson-Pell.

Under normal circumstances, the U of A can ride out unpredictable revenue streams, he said, but this year’s 7.2 per cent provincial funding cut put the institution in a difficult situation—namely, a $56-million funding shortfall in 2014-15.

“As a resilient organization with a great deal of flexibility and imagination, we can ride out some of those challenges under normal circumstances. What made this year so distinctively different was the short notice and the magnitude,” said Ferguson-Pell during a Sept. 6. campus forum and budget update.

Compounding the unexpected budget cut, the university has a structural deficit, caused largely by salaries and benefits rising faster than revenues.

The university initially proposed addressing the deficit over three years, as outlined in the Comprehensive Institutional Plan, but the timeline was rejected by government and subsequently shortened to two years.

Shortened timeline

Ferguson-Pell said the longer timeline would have allowed for more cautious, strategic decision-making; however, senior leadership remains committed to ensuring excellence at the U of A, as mandated by the board of governors. There is no single path the university plans to follow to address these challenges, he added, noting many decisions made in the coming weeks and months will be made in consultation with faculties across campus.

“The implementation of our budget, good or bad, ultimately is delivered by our faculties, through discussion within the faculties about what the best courses of action are for any given faculty’s circumstances,” he said. “This is not a top-down driven process from the standpoint of us presenting a plan and people following a recipe.”

Phyllis Clark, vice-president of finance and administration, gave an overview of budget decisions to date, including spending cuts of $28.8 million for 2013-14. She explained the university is limited as to which dollars it can use to address the deficit, noting dollars for expenses such as capital projects and research must be used for those purposes.

During a recent deans’ retreat, senior leadership agreed to cut faculty budgets by seven per cent and administrative portfolios by eight-to-10 per cent. Ferguson-Pell said the way in which those cuts roll out depends on several factors factors, including uptake in the voluntary severance program.  Everything is on the table, including finding new ways to generate revenue and changing how research dollars are shared centrally and at the faculty level, Ferguson-Pell said.

Questions and future directions

The question-and-answer session following Ferguson-Pell’s presentation included criticism about the university’s lack of transparency over faculty cuts, and questions about how to mitigate the impact on students and why the institution and government don’t raise tuition to save programs.

Ferguson-Pell said it’s always the university’s goal to minimize the effect of budget cuts on students, but the two-year timeframe means less “wiggle-room.” The Faculty of Science, for example, is now meeting enrolment targets after years of over-enrolment; higher admission requirements in the faculty only serve to keep enrolment in line with available funding.

“We think that access is a problem too,” added Clark. “We really think there are large numbers of people that want to come to the University of Alberta … but we do need to make sure we have the funding to make sure it would happen.”

Clark pointed out the province has ruled out tuition increases for this year and, beyond that, the future is unknown.

Ferguson-Pell said the decision to not disclose individual budget changes was made out of concern, rightly or wrongly, about creating inter-faculty conflicts given differential cuts. He did note, however, that President Indira Samarasekera has heard the concerns and committed to the highest level of transparency. A new data book system containing financial information about the U of A will launch Sept. 10 in a more user-friendly format.

Samarasekera will provide a further update to the campus community weekly on Colloquy and during her annual state of the university address on Sept. 19.