Equal funding?

By Jeff Kubik

“The fact that in a rich province there should be any deficit at all from the provincial grant is already very serious and scandalous.”

University of Calgary Faculty Association President Anton Colijn doesn’t mince words when it comes to the current levels of provincial funding for the U of C. Along with university administration and the Students’ Union, TUCFA sees the current distribution of grants between Alberta’s post-secondary institutions as flawed, leaving the U of C struggling with budget cuts and overcrowded classrooms.

With the Nov. 28 announcement of the new Advanced Education ministry and David Hancock’s appointment as minister, effectively separating K-12 education from post-secondary, the Alberta government has declared university-level education one of its top priorities. However, faced with the recent TUCFA backlash against administration’s proposed five per cent cut to all faculty budgets and an enrollment cap that many accuse of reducing post-secondary accessibility, most students remain unclear on provincial funding for the U of C.

In addition to tuition and individual grants, all post-secondary education in Alberta is funded on the basis of operating grants rather than Ontario’s “income units”–per student funding allocated based on the student’s program. In 2003/2004, the unadjusted operating grant for the U of C was $185.3 million, compared with $280.9 million for the University of Alberta and $45.4 million for the University of Lethbridge.

“At Alberta universities, all funding is basically historical,” said the U of C’s Vice President of Finance, Michael McAdam. “It began one day long ago and it’s grown based on inflation factors and grant adjustment.”

One of the most important mechanisms for the adjustment of provincial grants has been the Access Fund, targeting specific programs such as health care, business and “those programs… that respond to labour market and fit within [the institution’s] mandate.” After five years, these funds are rolled into the base operating grant and increase proportionally thereafter.

While the U of C has markedly benefited from these Access funds, with $26.5 million in the 2004 fiscal year against the U of A’s $23.3 million, Colijn called the Access program a “partial solution” that does not meaningfully address the reality of the U of C’s current programs.

“It’s true that historically the U of A had more of the so-called expensive faculties than we did,” admitted Coijn. “When this university was started in 1966 we had neither medicine nor law, for example, and engineering was relatively small. But the difference between us and the U of A has to a large extent disappeared. Yes it is true that they have a school of dentistry and a faculty of [Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics]. But on the whole the situation is now much more similar than it used to be between the two. In the near future we will get a school of Veterinary medicine, which is also an expensive undertaking. So I think the reasons for the differential funding per student have largely disappeared.”

“There is a disparity between the U of A and the U of C and there’s no real justification for it in my mind,” agreed U of C Students’ Union President Bryan West.

In response to the perceived inequitable distribution of provincial funding, an MLA report on post-secondary operating grants was tabled in 2000. Recommending equity adjustments to the base grants and mandated reviews every five years, the report lead to $12 million in subsequent financing according to Jason Chance, Alberta Learning’s Vice-President of Communications. Though the date has not been announced, U of C administration, faculty and the SU are already preparing for the upcoming review, all hoping to bridge the disputed funding gap between the U of C and the U of A.

“The university has accepted far more than its fair share of students in the last ten years, accounting for 25 per cent of all new admissions in Alberta,” said McAdam. “It’s at the point where, even by Alberta Learning’s benchmark there are 2,700 un-funded or under-funded students.”

“If you look at the number of post secondary seats available in southern Alberta compared to Northern Alberta, Calgary is really short of post secondary places,” agreed Colijn.

“The funding review is going to be a critical juncture for us because we feel the funding levels for the U of C are way below where they should be,” said West. “Classes are crowded, resources are scarce and there is no room for new students as it stands right now. Until funding changes, there is no real opportunity for the U of C to take on new students.”

With the review coming as early as January or February, according to McAdam, provincial post-secondary funding will soon have a forum for discussion, with representatives from universities and colleges across the province vying for increases in vital funding.

“I think some interesting things have changed in these five years,” said McAdam, adding, “All universities will have an opportunity in a few short months.”


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