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Students’ Voices on the Operating Budget: An Open Letter to President Ilene Bush-Vishniac

by The U of S Students Against Austerity

Students’ Voices on the Operating Budget: An Open Letter to President Ilene Bush-Vishniac

When the 2012 Provincial Budget was released, the University of Saskatchewan received a 2.1 percent increase in its operating grant1. This was about three percent lower than the expected increase in the provincial grant, the University's largest funding source2. The U of S was told to expect similar funding increases in each of the next four provincial budgets. In the 2013-14 Budget the government kept their promise to maintain an operating grant increase of 2.1 percent for the U of S3. As a result of this less-than-expected allocation trend, coupled with increasing operating budget expenditure projections, the U of S will allegedly have a $44.5 million operating deficit by 2016, unless something changes.

To address the projected operating budget deficit, the University of Saskatchewan has implemented a multi-pronged operating budget adjustment initiative that includes workforce planning, revenue generation and diversification ventures, and a comprehensive program prioritization process called TransformUS, among other processes4. The TransformUS initiative is made up of two task forces mandated to rank all academic and support service programs supported by the operating budget, based on a methodology developed by American education consultant Robert Dickeson5. Through this ranking process, programs will be placed into one of five quintiles that will largely determine whether the University administration will increase, maintain, or reduce investment into these programs in future budgets, with some programs being marked for elimination. The TransformUS process began in January 2013 with a timeline for the task forces to complete their final report in less than a year6.

Since the beginning of the operating budget adjustment initiative, students have raised a number of critiques and concerns to University administration. The first battle was for student representation on the TransformUS task forces. After the issue was brought forth at a packed University Council meeting, the University administration consented to one undergraduate and one graduate student on each task force, while giving no substantive argument for limiting student participation. This under representation of a critical stakeholder in the TransformUS process— the numerically dominant group at this institution— is a major flaw within this initiative.

Many students are also concerned with the model chosen as the template for TransformUS. This is referred to as the Dickeson model and was developed for private, for-profit American educational institutions, and thus advantages revenue-generating programs over others. What do we lose when we transplant this corporate model of program prioritization to a public institution such as the U of S? We lose a culture where higher education is a social good and university is attended for the development of one’s mind and society. Instead, university becomes a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Under this corporate educational model, programs not immediately and directly related to job preparation but on developing critical intellectual rigor— most notably the humanities and arts disciplines— are de-valued and de-funded. While the task forces have argued that they have adapted Dickeson’s program prioritization model to meet the specific needs of the U of S, the criteria for ranking academic programs remain exactly the same as Dickeson’s original criteria7.

Students are also concerned about the framing of this operating budget adjustment initiative as inevitable while there is a lack of resolve in University leadership to tackle the root of the problem: too little government funding for post-secondary education. University President Ilene Bush-Vishniac has traditionally responded to questions about the University’s efforts to secure sustainable government funding by stating that the U of S’ funding situation is quite good relative to our ‘comparator institutions’ across the country (other U15 schools such as the U of A and U of M)8. However, the U of S has no true comparator institution for the purposes of funding allocation9; the U of S is situated inside the only province with a ‘balanced budget’. This notable dissimilarity from the other U15 schools, especially in a context of strong economic growth, should be taken into account when we discuss what constitutes reasonable funding allocations10. The University of Saskatchewan is a public institution that must be sustained with adequate public funds if it is to maintain independence and excellence, and create an educated, engaged, democratic citizenry. Operating budget adjustment initiatives such as workforce planning (read: job and service cuts) and revenue generation and diversification (read: increasing corporate influence at the University) undoubtedly affect the quality of education, content of courses, direction of research, and overall freedom of this institution to chart its own path.

The purpose of TransformUS is to prioritize programming in line with the University’s mission, which begins with the statement that the “University of Saskatchewan belongs to the people of Saskatchewan”11. TransformUS and other operating budget adjustment initiatives seem to be reallocating resources towards resource generating priorities and into administrative and executive salaries,12 rather than facilitating an inclusive discussion on our collective priorities as an institution and as people of this province. Although President Bush-Vishniac has thus far failed to advocate strongly for students and the people of Saskatchewan, she will have many more opportunities to deal with the province on behalf of students and other stakeholders at the U of S. Therefore, we make the following four recommendations, as students, and as persons deeply committed to the wellbeing of the University of Saskatchewan:

  1. Provide more time for public inquiry and debate upstream of large decisions over priorities and process. An indicator that due time was not given for a thorough exploration of options is the fact that there was no search for alternative program prioritization methods to the Dickeson model. In future initiatives we need to apply our local knowledge and develop our own organically and democratically created methodologies for critical prioritization processes.

  1. Ensure a diversity of people and voices at the table when the U of S engages in strategic planning and priority setting. The persons making these decisions need to reflect the diversity of the province if the University is to truly fulfill its mission to “belong to the people of Saskatchewan.”

  1. Publicly inquire into allegations of ‘perp walks’ for fired employees, so we have assurance that inhumane practices are not occurring at our institution. We students do not support this technique being used on committed staff at the University of Saskatchewan.

  1. President Bush-Vishniac must be more bold and public with challenges to provincial funding allocations. She should trust the support behind her and use the power she has as the President of the U of S to advocate for increased government funding. This must be done publicly in order to cause the provincial government to pay a political cost for under-funding its dominant research institution and one of its greatest engines of economic growth. When polite negotiations happen behind closed doors, the government does not have to worry about political fallout from its post-secondary funding decisions. Make it costly, Bush Vish. Critique the approach to lobbying for funding of this institution and step up the pressure.

This letter is submitted in the hope that real and sustained dialogue can develop between students and University administration.

Signed,

Sasha Hanson Pastran, St. Thomas More College/ College of Arts and Science

Dan LeBlanc, College of Law

Mary Jean Hande, Member of University Senate

Davida Bentham, College of Graduate Studies and Research

Melissa Gan, College of Arts and Science

Xochitl Hanson Pastran, College of Medicine

Elias Nelson, College of Arts and Science

Haseeb Risvi, College of Kinesiology

Amanda Guthrie, College of Arts and Science

Jon Herriot, College of Medicine

Grace Schenher, College of Arts and Science

Erica Lee, St. Thomas More College/ College of Arts and Science

Heather Franklin, College of Law

Irena Smith, College of Arts and Science

Leif Jensen, College of Law

Kota Kimura, College of Graduate Studies and Research

Dan Pagan, College of Law

Andrea Cessna, College of Arts and Science

Christine Young, College of Arts and Science

Savhanna Wilson, College of Graduate Studies and Research

Katherine Edwards, College of Arts and Science

Molly Patterson, College of Agriculture & Bioresources

Catherine Nygren, College of Arts and Science

Cooper Muirhead College of Arts and Science

Seth Dueck, College of Engineering

Christine Chang, College of Medicine

Alyssa Scott, College of Arts & Science

5 Dickeson, Robert. Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (revised and updated, 2010).

10 The U of R is arguably not a comparator institution because it has far fewer students than the U of S.

 

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