Keep Brandon University from meeting Laurentian’s fate

Mar 22, 2023 | News

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press:

IN February 2021, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., became the first Canadian public university to, for all intents and purposes, declare bankruptcy. It sought creditor protection and, in an unprecedented move, fired more than 100 tenured faculty and cancelled more than one-third of its programs, gutting the arts and humanities that are the core of a university.

A thorough investigation by the Ontario auditor general identified the root causes. It was not, as some claimed, too many overpaid faculty: it was an overambitious capital spending program and a bloated — and frankly incompetent — senior administration that did its best to hide the precarious financial state of the university for more than a decade.

Thus, the lament from the auditor general of Manitoba that his recommendations are not being implemented resonates now. He called for greater fiscal oversight of our colleges and universities. We at the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations agree completely. Greater financial transparency would benefit everyone.

We disagree quite vehemently, however, with the proposed solution of the Pallister-Stefanson government: so-called “performance-based funding” that ties funding levels to performance metrics.

It doesn’t work, and places smaller institutions with less fiscal capacity to adapt, such as Brandon University, at even greater financial risk. Most importantly, it was a thinly disguised tool for political interference, where government, not universities, decides what programs are worthy.

There is an obvious solution to the problem of greater fiscal oversight: establish an arm’s-length body to do so. Until recently we had exactly such a body: the Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE). It had the power to scrutinize budgets line by line.

We would also call for proper training of members of the board of governors in their role (and ministers, too, especially when they have not previously attended university). Universities and colleges are complex institutions with an important public role. Serving on the board of governors is not a job for amateurs. Had the Laurentian University board of governors been more on the ball, that collapse may have been averted.

The parallels between Laurentian and Brandon University are apt. Both are primarily undergraduate universities in rural settings, northern Ontario and western Manitoba, respectively. Both serve a student base close to home; BU’s student population comes from the city of Brandon and surrounding rural communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Both have long, proud histories of delivering higher education to rural students, Indigenous students and those with non-traditional paths to higher education.

Neither is necessarily a top destination for international students, who bring with them the high tuition fees that are often used to prop up university budgets in the face of shrinking public funding. Both faced or are facing financial crisis.

As the only public university outside Winnipeg, Brandon University serves a unique and important role in Manitoba. Its mandate is to deliver high-quality post-secondary education, with a twin commitment to open-access education and provision of the resources necessary for student success in a rural setting. This requires greater public support, as such a university cannot achieve the economies of scale of its larger counterparts in Winnipeg.

In the 2023 provincial budget, the Stefanson government announced, after seven years of effective cuts, an 11.7 per cent increase in funding for post-secondary education. The three Winnipeg universities received increases to their grants ranging from 10 per cent to more than 20 per cent. But Brandon University received just 3.5 per cent.

That meagre increase makes no sense, given its precarious financial position, most notably running an operating deficit in 2019/20. The pandemic has adversely affected enrolment, shrinking the tuition-fee base. The lower cap on tuition-fee increases shrinks it even further.

Let’s be clear: Brandon risks entering a death spiral of program cuts, resulting in lower enrolment, necessitating in turn further cuts.

It is not too late to stop a Laurentian crisis from happening at Brandon. To do so, we call for three things.

First, there must be an immediate correction to the 2023/24 funding baseline for Brandon University, at least in line with the average increase for the Winnipeg universities.

Second, we call for an immediate public audit of the financial position of the university.

And third, re-establish an arm’s-length body — one that does not interfere with university autonomy — to perform the fiscal oversight public institutions deserve.

The current government and the auditor general have emphasized the importance of financial accountability for our colleges and universities. We couldn’t agree more. We believe the books of our universities and colleges should be wide open for public scrutiny.

Scott Forbes is the president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations and professor at University of Winnipeg. Allison McCulloch is the vice-president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations and professor at Brandon University; she is also a graduate of Laurentian University.