University awaits results of predicted budget shortfall

As the announcement of the provincial operating grant approaches, university administration, faculty members and staff wait to see if a predicted budget shortfall for 2010-11 will come true.

This predicted deficit has spawned two new initiatives, Optimizing Academic Resources (OARs) and the Resource Optimization and Service Enhancement (ROSE) project.

Vice-president (administration) Debbie McCallum explained that the purpose of these projects is to try and identify more cost efficient methods of operating the university.

“We’re going to have a bit of a budget shortfall, and we thought if we could try and look for ways of saving money, then that will help us as we strike our budget for 2010-11 and beyond,” said McCallum.

So far, a few quick ways of saving money have been identified. For example, centralizing the purchasing of things like lab and computer equipment could save the university millions of dollars if they could negotiate better pricing on volume discounts.

However, as U of M president David Barnard said at last October’s town hall, 70 per cent of the university’s operation budget is spent on salaries and benefits.

“If you’re going to achieve significant savings, it might mean that we have fewer staff, but it’s too early in the process to predict that,” said McCallum.

“Until we analyze those opportunities, validate them and further design them, we won’t really know what, if any, impact it’s going to have on staff.”

In order to sustain the programming levels for 2010-11, the university would need a 12.9 per cent — or $36.4 million — operating grant increase, a 41.1 per cent increase to tuition or a combination of both.

“That calculation, we’re asked to do,” said McCallum. “We’re not proposing a 41.1 per cent increase at all. We’re just asked to calculate what our inflationary costs are and what we would need in the way of either an increase to our grant or an increase to tuition in order to cover increased costs.”

“That’s just a formula we’re given by COPSE [Council on Post-Secondary Education] to use when we prepare our operating estimates, but don’t think for a minute that we would ever propose a 41.1 per cent tuition increase. That would create all kinds of hardship, and we would never even suggest doing it.”

McCallum also explained that, now that the province has elected a new premier, they’re not sure what the provincial government’s stance is on tuition and whether or not they’ll be allowed to increase tuition at all.

Brett McKenzie, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA), said that, although nothing has been confirmed by university administration at this point, UMFA has some concerns with what they’ve seen so far.

“One of the issues with ROSE is if there is a downloading of responsibilities to academic members that obviously increases workload,” said McKenzie. He pointed out that a centralization of certain responsibilities might make it more difficult to access resources such as technical support for computers.

McKenzie also made the observation that other imposed measures by the university include departments being required to present a budget with a five per cent reduction for the upcoming year and a freeze on hiring for both support staff and faculty positions.
“Those things have significant potential impacts on the quality of our programs going forward, if they are implemented.”

Both the OARs and ROSE projects are in a transitional phase, meaning most faculties and departments haven’t seen any direct impact yet.

“There have been suggestions from the consultants how the administrative structure of the university might be reconfigured, but none of us have actually seen any sort of specific applications of the theory yet,” said Roy Rouza, acting dean of science.

Rouza said that he has heard some concerns from those within his faculty about the projects, but they mostly just want to know what is going on.

“The questions are sort of simple. [ . . . ] ‘So we hear about this project, what’s the impact for us? What’s going to happen?’”

“My answer to them is [ . . . ] so far I’ve seen theory, I haven’t seen practice yet. Until I’ve seen practice and I’ve seen an application of these things, it’s impossible for me to know just how to react to this sort of thing yet.”

Although he agreed that his faculty members are concerned, he didn’t think it was because of any specific knowledge at this point.

“I would say if they have a concern, it’s because maybe they don’t fully understand the process yet. Even some of us on the steering committee are grappling with the right way to go with this now,” said Rouza.

“I think it’s more of ignorance on everybody’s part and uncertainty rather than actual specifically threatening suggestions or anything like that yet. [ . . . ] I think it’s just a matter of not knowing.”

The university administration will decide how they want to move forward at the next Board of Governors meeting in March, but McCallum speculated that any major impact wouldn’t be seen for at least six months to a year.