The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science is downsizing as it struggles to accommodate a $6.65 million budget cut this academic year.
Enrolment, programs and courses will be cut for graduate students, and undergraduates will see admissions averages and class sizes increased next year.
The 15 academic staff accepted for the voluntary severance program (VSP) two weeks ago will cover approximately 40 per cent — or $2.5 million — of the mandatory cuts, Dean Jonathan Schaeffer said, but the faculty must cut further to account for the remaining $4 million.
“Clearly, we would love to have more professors, a bigger graduate program and more and more students, assuming we have the resources to properly supervise them,” he said. “But the times have changed, and we have to reflect the changing reality of the Faculty of Science.”
Schaeffer said the total number of grad students will decrease next year relative to the staff members lost to the VSP, leaving the ratio of grad students to professors roughly the same.
The faculty is also discussing revenue generation methods meant to offset the impact of the cuts, with one possibility being the implementation of lab fees for students. While the idea is merely a proposal at this stage, Schaeffer said he doesn’t know how much it would cost students. He said some universities across Canada charge between $25 and $200 per course for access to labs.
“None of these things are things myself or my chairs want to do,” Schaeffer said. “We will do what we can to survive what I believe is a short term financial matter, and as soon as this is behind us we will do whatever we can to grow and reach our full potential.”
The possibility of implementing course-based master’s programs has been discussed, he added. Teacher supervision is a major cost of master’s programs, but course-based master’s programs don’t require supervision from faculty staff, Schaeffer said.
Following recent news of substantial course and program cuts to the Faculty of Arts, Graduate Students’ Association President Brent Epperson said he’s worried about the latest blow to one of the university’s biggest faculties.
“Our concern is that they could be making decisions now that will have severe negative impacts on graduate students in those two faculties,” he said.
“These faculties could shrink substantially in the next couple years, and that’s not something you can rebound from easily. If they could hold off somehow and have a contingency plan that wouldn’t involve cuts to the size of the graduate program, that’s what I would encourage them to do.”
The short timelines have led to a chain reaction, Epperson said, where central administration has been forced into making difficult decisions without clear information on the government’s plans.
“The risk is that deans could be making decisions for severe cuts that affect graduate students now, when in spring or even sooner it might turn out that such drastic cuts are not necessary,” he said. “We don’t know what the next budget is going to be.”
Students’ Union Vice-President (Academic) Dustin Chelen said the university may see less students enrolling in the future because of the lasting effects of the current financial situation.
Although the provincial government announced the cuts to post-secondary education more than seven months ago, Chelen said the U of A doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy for handling the crisis.
“It’s fascinating how much confusion there is around the budget position at the U of A,” he said.
“For a number of undergraduate students that may have been considering graduate studies, with (these) positions being cut, they might be out of luck.”
Along with downsizing staff and graduate students, undergraduate students applying to the faculty will be faced with higher requirements for admissions averages. Schaeffer said the faculty is funded to accommodate 6,100 students, with approximately 6,450 currently enrolled.
Schaeffer didn’t specify the exact increase, but with resources already stretched thin, he said the slight increase in admissions requirements is necessary to keep enrolment levels manageable with less staff.
“The Faculty of Science is firing on all cylinders. This is a faculty that should be growing, not shrinking,” he said. “Any kind of shrinking is a worst-case scenario.
“With the quality of people that we have and the potential that we have to do great things, we should be growing.”
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