Opinion: Underfunding hurts Brandon and university

Apr 3, 2023 | News

Underfunding hurts Brandon and university

This piece originally appeared in the March 25th edition of the Brandon Sun. It is republished on the MOFA website with the permission of the Brandon Sun

By: Deveryn Ross

Posted: 3:00 AM CDT Saturday, Mar. 25, 2023

It’s been a bumpy few weeks for Brandon University.

On March 7, the Stefanson government unveiled its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, including the funding Manitoba’s universities would receive. The University of Winnipeg received a 20.2 per cent funding increase, the University of Manitoba received a 10.8 per cent increase, and the Université de St. Boniface received a 10 per cent increase.

Funding for Brandon University, on the other hand, was increased by just 3.5 per cent. This marks the fifth consecutive year of funding for BU that is below the rate of inflation. The university received an increase of just one per cent in both 2019-20 and 2020-21, 0.48 per cent in 2021-22 and 0.6 per cent in 2022-23. Nobody can credibly argue that hasn’t had an impact.

As Zach Fleisher pointed out in his op-ed in this newspaper last Saturday, BU would have received an additional $2.8 million if its funding had been increased by 10.4 per cent (the mid-point between the funding that the U of M and St. Boniface received). That extra cash would have helped reverse the harm caused by the previous four years of underfunding and had a tremendous impact on BU’s budget for the coming fiscal year.

Indeed, BU’s board of governors approved the university’s 2023-24 budget last Saturday, and it was reported in this newspaper Monday that, “While BU’s domestic, non-Indigenous student population is expected to increase by six per cent next year, the university has endured a steady decline in enrolment in this area since 2019-20, culminating with a nine per cent drop for 2022-23.”

The same report indicated that, “BU was forced to remove a $225,000 subsidy from its Program for the Education of Native Teachers (PENT) in order to come up with a balanced budget. This initiative provides Indigenous students and teaching assistants from northern Manitoba with the opportunity to pursue a career in education at BU while continuing to work in their home community.”

That cut to such an important program would not have been necessary if BU had received a funding increase in line with the increases the three Winnipeg universities received.

In an op-ed published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Wednesday, professors Scott Forbes and Allison McCulloch (the president and vice-president, respectively, of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations) referred to BU’s funding allotment and said this: “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.”

They argued that, “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.”

In order to make their point more emphatically, Forbes and McCulloch alluded to Laurentian University, which sought creditor protection in 2021, fired more than 100 tenured faculty members and cancelled more than one-third of its programs. They warned that continued underfunding of BU by the province could eventually cause a crisis similar to that which occurred at Laurentian.

That ominous warning was certainly well-intentioned — it was made by the professors in the hope it would persuade the government to increase BU’s funding — but it was not well-received by the university’s administration.

In a long statement posted on the university’s website Thursday, BU president David Docherty wrote that, “It is untrue to say that BU’s financial position is at all like Laurentian’s was and it is gravely misleading to suggest that we may face a quote ‘Laurentian crisis’ at BU… Some may say that our resources are stretched, but it is a stretch to say we are facing ‘financial crisis.’”

He then added that, “Of course, BU wants to grow, and we could use more resources to help us. We fully agree with MOFA that funding should be equitably distributed across the province, and if there is any inequity, it is smaller, regional universities (who bear the same responsibilities but with fewer economies of scale) where the extra funds could go the furthest.”

Docherty may regard the reference to Laurentian’s plight as inflammatory, but it is the most current example of what can happen when a university doesn’t have enough cash to fulfill its mandate.

This is no time to argue over the appropriateness of analogies. After five consecutive years of funding increases below the rate of inflation, does anybody really believe BU could withstand another five years of underfunding without dire consequences for the university, our city and region?

We all know the answer to that question. It’s time for BU administration, faculty, staff and alumni, along with every resident of Brandon and Westman, to realize we are all on the same side here and share the same goal: securing the long-term future of a vital cornerstone of our city, region and economy.

It’s time for us all to speak with one united voice; one strong voice that tells the Stefanson government that the underfunding of BU must end now. Brandon may be Manitoba’s second-largest city, but that does not justify the second-rate treatment our university is receiving.

» deverynrossletters@gmail.com

» Twitter: @deverynross