Point/Counterpoint: Budget cuts

U of M students debate impending budget cuts

Point: Unsustainable spending has made budget cuts necessary

Over the course of the last few months there has been a rising chorus of voices calling on the University of Manitoba administration to put an end to the proposed cuts to the budget. This collective of students and unions, including the Canadian Federation of Students, places the blame for the cuts on the shoulders of the administration, claiming that the funding priorities are astray.

There is a silent majority of students that understand this these budget cuts are in fact the unfortunate repercussions of the prolonged tuition freeze that Manitoba went through in the 2000s. Since the freeze has been lifted, the university has been heavily restricted in how much tuition can be raised, limiting it to the rate of inflation.

This would work if the university’s operating costs were bound to the rate of inflation as well, but this is not the case. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) is one of the organizations that has signed on to criticize the administration, but it can be argued that they are doing more than their fair share towards creating the funding gap. A quick perusal of their collective agreement (readily available online) shows UMFA members earning a raise of around 3 per cent per year, while Statistics Canada shows the annual rate of inflation is closer to 1.5 per cent.

UMFA’s involvement in any opposition to budget cuts is highly suspect, and downright hypocritical considering that the entitlement felt by its membership that has contributed to the situation we are in. The ones that suffer in a budget cut are not the professors, but students and the sessional instructors who do the lion’s share of our educating and are not UMFA members.

It’s time for those that claim to represent students to understand that they do not speak for us all. There is a silent majority of students who recognize that the calls for reduced tuition but no corresponding budget cuts are not sustainable. Just like the engineering students realized in 2007, a quality education has a cost to it, though back then it was students fighting to increase their own tuition.

The same organizations that got us into this mess are the ones leading the charge for a stop to the budget cuts, but what you do not see is a plan. There is no alternative proposed to the university on how to deal with its shortfalls. As a result, any legitimate points are buried in the rhetoric.

There does need to be a discussion about the university’s budget, and there does need to be student representation. But instead of a loud and disorganized rabble amassing and making noise in Chancellor’s Circle, let us use the established systems to have these discussions.

For a change, let’s actually have a voice speak for all 24,665 of us undergraduates, rather than the couple hundred that hold a particular viewpoint and decided to hold a rally. Let UMSU Council be the site of legitimate debate on the merits of the issues. Just because “A Rally for the Understanding that Things Cost Money” isn’t as catchy as “Stop the Cuts” does not mean this viewpoint is any less valid.

We are at a crossroads where we as students must decide whether we want a cheap education or a quality education. I for one would rather pay for quality, and am sick and tired of a small segment of the student body claiming to know what is best for me. The fact remains that the student leaders who have been in any budget-related discussions understand that this is an inevitability. So to those that stand in opposition to the budget cuts I ask but one question: what is your alternative?

Mark Stewart is in his final year of a bachelor of arts. He has previously served as the senior stick of arts.

Counterpoint: Money is available, but administration’s priorities are misplaced

Faculties and other non-academic units at the University of Manitoba are being asked to prepare for three to four per cent cuts not just this year, but also the next. When such a reduction is prescribed it is a responsibility to treat this evaluation with due skepticism.

President David Barnard claims “the financial demands associated with operating our institution have outpaced the growth of our resources” and that as a result the funding model in place is inadequate. An inadequate funding model combined with the requirement for the University of Manitoba to maintain a balanced budget would superficially appear to lend credibility to austerity measures.

The majority, 56 per cent, of the U of M’s funding is provided by the provincial government through an operating grant. Tuition fees account for 24 per cent, while the remaining 20 per cent is provided by other sources such as campus businesses and sales of goods and services.

As it stands the U of M is facing a $10.5 million budget shortfall for 2015-2016. Administration claims a 2.5 per cent increase in the provincial operating grant this year and last is meagre compensation for a province which has the third lowest tuition fees in the country.

Given inconsistent provincial funding and a cap on tuition already low, with perceived room to increase, it is regrettable, though unsurprising, many are willing to stop here and embrace a position of comfortable credulity in favour of cuts. Perhaps now is the place where a responsibility for skepticism is to be practised.

The U of M produced $43.3 million in net revenue for 2014. Now, why does the need to cut anything exist given this simple figure? The answer is that the majority of this revenue is shifted, through inter-fund transfers, from the operating fund to the capital fund. The capital fund is used for expenses such as library acquisitions, equipment purchases, construction, and renovations.

At the year-end of 2014, $42 million was transferred to the capital fund, meaning that 97 per cent of the year’s net revenue had already been spent.

Of this capital money, $10.5 million was spent on library acquisitions. There is no doubt to the importance of increasing library collections, however what is the use of a well-stocked library if we have fewer professors and less qualified, underpaid instructors? This is to say nothing of the exorbitant construction projects, such as the $3.6 million spent on the Welcome Centre.

Consider also that there is over $130 million in unrestricted general investments which hypothetically may be used to remedy the U of M’s budget woes. The administration claims these funds in reserve are “virtually all committed” and that utilizing them would lead to cancellation of upcoming projects critical to the U of M’s goals. The particulars of such investments and goals remain in question, though the primacy of retaining quality academics is not.

Further, the administration says that the reserves “serve as an important cushion in the case of an emergency or unexpected situation.” Well, when the province decreases its promised funding, offering less than expected two years in a row, how are we not in an unexpected situation if not an emergency?

Is it that foolish to think that cuts themselves count as an emergency? Those who believe the primary focus of a university is education give an emphatic “no.”

The question to be asking is not whether budget cuts are inevitable or necessary: of course they are not. Rather, we should ask this same question of the university administration’s priorities and principles, or, if you must, “strategic plans.”

Devon Hanel is a third-year science student with an interest in philosophy and political theory.