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Alex Usher of the Higher Education Strategy Associates has posted a series of comments on the operating budgets of Canadian colleges and universities since 1992 (first second third fourth and fifth).  In a comment he explains that his source is the Financial Information for Universities and Colleges survey by Statistics Canada (here).  I have some doubts about how reliable such high-level figures from many universities are, and would like to research his source’s definition of such terms as “operating budget” and “physical plant,” but I will accept his tables for the sake of argument (edit: for definitions see here).

Usher begins by announcing that many people say that Canadian universities are being starved of money, then showing that the income of Canadian universities in 2010 was about twice as high as in the period 1992-1998.  After correcting for inflation and funding-per-student, that gives an increase in funding-per-student in constant dollars of about 40%.  Yet the number of students per full-time teacher increased by about 25%, and the share of operating budgets spent on academic salaries declined.  He suggests that within operating budgets, scholarships, non-wage benefits, utilities, and contracted services ate up most of this increase in funding, with perhaps some increase in spending on central administration as a percentage of total spending.  Elsewhere he also acknowledges that sudden fluctuations in university funding, such as the BC cuts circa 2008 or the Alberta cuts of 2013, can be difficult for universities to absorb because the basic functions of a university take years and create many fixed costs.  He blames increases in the pay of tenure-track faculty for putting pressure on other parts of the system (source), but I don’t understand how this can be reconciled with his evidence that spending on teaching has risen more slowly than total spending at Canadian universities.

Usher’s figures, and the data which they reflect, are worth reading for anyone interested in higher education in Canada.  The figures for total university funding since 1992 are probably reasonably reliable, and should give anyone who believes in an absolute shortage of money food for thought.  Yet I am surprised that he directs his first post against those who believe “that higher education has been under some brutal, neo-liberal assault since… well, I’m not sure, but probably since 1995 at least, and everything is being defunded.“  I am not so familiar with people who believe this, but I have seen a lot of evidence for another kind of neo-liberal influence.

At the moment there is strong pressure to reshape Canadian universities towards a focus on applied technology and job training at the expense of education and learning for its own sake.  Evidence can be regularly seen in the editorial columns of the Globe and Mail and National Post, as well as in the propaganda issued by some university PR apparatuses and their equivalents in government.  Cuts would be much easier to deal with if the harm were evenly distributed; as it is, humanists ration photocopies in buildings from the ’60s while STEM departments wheel cartloads of free computers into their new buildings.  Yet this is not really a problem of C.P. Snow’s two cultures, because this idea is just as threatening to theoretical physicists, most mathematicians, and biologists who study species which are not economically important as it is to humanists, artists, and social scientists.  I know two engineers in Alberta who complain that they are being pushed to promise commercial results from their research within two to three years, even though such developments rely on a foundation of basic research with a long time horizon and uncertain outcomes, and even though safe projects with clear commercial benefits tend to already have people working on them.  Usher doesn’t like to talk about this, but in my opinion this is the area where neo-liberal ideas are really causing drastic change in the Canadian university system.  Higher education in Canada has enough resources, but as always the problem is how those resources are distributed.