BC funding cuts will lead to larger classes, less choice

Facing a nine per cent budget cut, UBC Okanagan will be one of the hardest hit

The BC Liberal government gave colleges and universities a nasty surprise last month when it announced — just two weeks before the April 1 start of the fiscal year — that the schools would receive millions less than promised. Although budgets had already been completed based on the government’s three-year funding schedule, Premier Gordon Campbell’s government cut 2.6 per cent across the board and reduced the number of funded student spaces, pledging to redirect the money into high priority areas like health care and skilled labour. The province-wide cut is estimated to be as high as $60 million.

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While the large universities should be able to swallow the shortfall (UBC Vancouver will miss $11.3 million, UVic $4.2 million), the smaller universities and colleges are in trouble. Philip Legg, policy and communications director of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC, said that virtually every college in BC has notified their faculty union of pending layoffs.

No university will be harder hit than UBC Okanagan, one of the province’s newest universities. The $4.5 million cut represents nine per cent of its 2008-09 budget. (In comparison, UBC Vancouver will only have to make up a three per cent cut.) And because the campus is three years into a major expansion, its financial, hiring, and enrolment plans are based on the assumption of growth.

When UBC-O was born three years ago from the foundations of its predecessor Okanagan University College, the government had ambitious plans. UBC-O began adding undergraduate and graduate programs with the goal of doubling enrolment to 7,500 students in five years.

But doubling enrolment takes more than just putting bums in chairs; the Kelowna campus is the site of a number of major construction projects and the university planned to hire 31 new professors and 23 staffers this year to accommodate 900 new students.

The March announcement put the brakes on all of that. UBC-O immediately froze hiring when Campbell announced the recurring cut, which included a 2.6 per cent reduction in base funding as well as a 343-student reduction. Although the school will still see an increase in funding over last year, UBC-O may now only be able to hire 13 new professors and 9 staffers, according to initial discussions.

This is of major concern to students enrolled in new programs such as management and engineering. A third-year student in the brand new electrical engineering program, Jackie Nichols is worried that she won’t be able to finish her program on time.

Nichols, who is also the president of the undergraduate engineering club at UBC-O, is in the first class scheduled to graduate from the engineering program. Because the program isn’t old enough to have any fourth-year students yet, it is dependent on enrolment growth to continue to exist.

The engineering program also needs to hire new professors to teach the upper-level courses Nichols will need to take next year to complete her degree. “Unless we can get 10 of [the 13 professors UBC-O can afford to hire], we’re probably going to have to drop a specialization,” Nichols said. “My professors are already teaching more classes than they are required just to keep the electrical engineering program going. They’ll have a hard time hiring new profs at reduced salaries,” she said. “And next year they’ll have to hire another 10 professors.” She’s worried that electrical engineering would be the first on the cutting block.

Doug Owram, deputy vice-chancellor of UBC-O, is hopeful that the government will reinstate the recurring funding cut next year. In the meantime, he’s willing to take some budget risks to push forward with hiring. “We are going to hire as many as is financially responsible,” he said.

Owram says that there are no plans to cut programs. But students will still notice the funding cuts. “They may notice they have less choice in higher years,” he said. “Classes will get larger.”

But hiring is not the only worry for UBC-O. Owram says cutting student spaces throws the whole plan out of whack. The new buildings under construction are designed for a 7,500-student campus. But if the government has permanently reduced the annual growth of per student funding by 343 student seats, UBC-O won’t be able to add the 900 new students needed each year to reach their goal. Owram says that he will meet with provincial officials soon to determine whether they still intend to grow the university to 7,500 students.

Owram says he understands the government’s position but that universities need advance warning in order to plan. “The timing was awful, quite frankly,” he said.

The timing also mystifies Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations. He says that the Campbell government has a relatively good post-secondary education record. When the Liberal government came to power in 2001, the sector was generally protected from the massive cuts to other government programs. “Post-secondary education was something they had won on,” Clift said.

Clift doesn’t understand why they’ve changed their tone only a year before the next provincial election. “They basically squandered their political capital and handed interest groups a post-secondary issue to campaign on for the next year until the election in 2009,” he said. “For the sake of saving $50-million, I don’t understand why they are doing this.”