Concordia’s chief financial officer Patrick Kelley presented many different methods for addressing the financial difficulties faced by universities in Quebec at the latest Open to Question discussion last week, but would not directly state which method Concordia would be implementing in the coming years.
“The era of being able to live beyond your means is over with, it’s tighter and tighter and tighter controls,” Kelley said, before listing the five main ways universities can modify how they are funded.
According to Kelley, if they are looking to address their financial difficulties, universities can increase student enrolment or make changes in the areas of tuition, teaching grants, support and special grants, and donations.
Of these, he did not offer his opinion on which was the best method, but did imply that changing tuition was perhaps the most feasible, noting that since the tuition arrangement currently in place will expire in “about a year,” it will soon become a topic of discussion.
“It’s not something that’s just going to float by,” he said.
After kicking off his lecture, titled “Financing Quebec universities: the basics and more,” with a presentation on full-time equivalence and weighted FTE’s, a part of the financing mechanism which helps determine how much funding a school will receive, Kelley took on the different financial challenges faced by the independent universities in Quebec, in comparison to what he called the “university of Quebec network.”
“For the independent universities on the left, we have to carry on our balance sheet a whole series of items that are related to our fundamental financial health. How much we have in the way of pension liabilities, what are we doing with post-retirement health care benefits, and all of this has been brought about by the imposition of new generally accepted accounting principles rules they’ve begun to apply this year,” Kelley explained.
“”University of Quebec’ schools do not have to do that.”
According to Kelley, the university is working to manage its budget as best as it can, but faces a few factors which are making things increasingly difficult. He noted that the school’s teaching grant decreased a bit, and that this year, the support grant for buildings and grounds did not increase at all, which became problematic when the school’s electricity and gas bills both increased.
He also pointed to the bigger problem of a university financing gap within the province somewhere in the area of $500 million, possibly even approaching a billion, which is actually hurt by the growth of institutions like Concordia.
“The university network is underfinanced by something in that type of range and somehow in some manner those gaps have got to be bridged because the spiral we’re in of constant growth is just not sustainable,” he explained.
Kelley briefly addressed international tuition, a hot issue on campus, saying that the university did not even receive much of those funds, and was actually acting almost as a “tax collector for the government of Quebec and Ministry of Education.”
Associate professor of biology Christine Dewolf noted during question period that the university is trying to strengthen its PhD programs, but the new billing structure for international students and the lack of international student fee remissions are preventing them from accomplishing it.
“To strengthen our programs we need to be able attract top international talent to Concordia,” she said, “something certainly in the sciences which we are not currently able to do, since we are not competitive with other Canadian universities, most of whom offer all PhD students international fee remissions.”
Kelley responded by saying they know how serious the problem is, but that Concordia does “not have the base funding or endowments that allow us right at this point to be able to be as generous and as forthcoming in terms of financial aid as we would like to be.”
In light of the presentation, which showed that both students and administration were interested in proper government funding for education, grad student and co-founder of Free Tuition Montreal Erik Chevrier posited an alternative option for the fight for financing.
“This is more of an invitation than a question,” Chevrier said, “but I would like the university administration and the different bodies involved to work with the students to maybe pressure the government so it doesn’t have to be an in-battle in some extent, but more looking for the real source of funding.”
Kelley sort of sidestepped the invitation, but acknowledged that not one group will be able to tackle the problem alone.
“It’s going to take a myriad of bodies working in some fashion,” he said. “Whether it be students or universities or colleges or the business community, working together to find out how that big gap, whatever that number is, is closed.”
Ultimately, Kelley said that the important positive to take out of these financial troubles is that people are finally talking about it, which he hopes will lead to an eventual resolution to the spiralling, inadequate system.
“I think that when people are forced to engage in discussion, some form of solution has got to come out of this thing. It can’t continue the way it is.”