A new year means change — but setting resolutions for yourself in pursuit of making the next year better than the one before should start with taking ownership of problems. Turning the calendar to 2012 is an opportunity to examine the University of Alberta too, and there are undoubtedly some things that need to change about this institution.
Take the sorry state of our finances. For two years, the provincial government gave the U of A a zero per cent increase to our base operating grant — the Campus Alberta grant — which is one of the institution’s main sources of funding. This has meant the burden has fallen onto students and faculty to make up the gap between low funding and rising costs.
Students saw the implementation of a mandatory non-instructional fee of $290 per year in 2010. Staff had to accept furlough days, the voluntary retirement incentive program and layoffs. Due to this, the diversity of upper level courses dropped, class sizes increased and the academic experience for undergraduates suffered.
Though the institution weathered these budget deficits through both 2009/10 and 2010/11, the cuts were not even close to being finished. Now, every faculty is being asked to cut 2.1 per cent from their budgets for the 2011/12 fiscal year. For the Faculty of Arts, whose plight has been the most publicized, this could result in layoffs. But all the faculties are essentially being asked to do more with less, which is an unreasonable expectation.
The provincial government has to take some of the responsibility here. They have not been prioritizing post-secondary education as they should be. Costs for the institution go up every year as salaries, benefits, and general utility costs increase.
Providing a zero per cent funding increase for multiple years in a row has left our institution battered. Further, their unsustainable approach to funding has made long-term planning difficult, as facing different financial situations every year leaves the U of A scrambling from problem to problem.
However, the administration also has to take ownership of this problem. They cannot ask the faculties to do the same with less. And while President Indira Samarasekera claims to be advocating for the importance of post-secondary to the province, we have yet to see results. It is the job of the Board of Governors and upper-level administrators at this university to convince the government to fund the U of A, and based on the lack of funding increases we’ve seen, they’re failing at this job.
A lack of ownership is not only harming the U of A when it comes to funding and budget deficits. Even in relationships with neighbours, the U of A’s reputation has been rocky at best. They’ve faced criticism in the past over South Campus expansions, and now 10 southside communities are taking the institution to court over the construction of a facility for research and production of medical isotopes.
The communities are claiming that the U of A did not follow the proper consultative process before moving forward with the facility. Provost Carl Amrhein told the Edmonton Journal that he was surprised about the court action, which shows that the institution is clearly still out of touch with the concerns of neighbourhood residents and isn’t working nearly hard enough to improve relations. Holding a few townhall meetings obviously hasn’t been enough to pacify these concerns.
And through all this discontent, those who suffer the most are the number-one stakeholder at this institution: students. Students are faced with higher fees for less service. We are asked to foot the bill for problems we have no control over.
Through all this, students are also faced with misinformation. The institution’s publication, Folio, as well as the U of A-run Express News, never address issues such as the budget cuts to faculties. In the President’s end-of-year address, she simply glosses over any of the serious issues that the university is facing internally and with their neighbours, and focuses on her advocacy efforts and the U of A’s international reputation. The U of A-run blog Colloquy likewise serves as a space for positive announcements, with rarely a controversial post. On the other side, a blog run by perennially-outraged professor Jeremy Richards called Whither the U of A does present the views of staff and faculty, but too often has descended into criticizing the administration for the sake of criticizing.
Rather than wasting time and ink congratulating themselves on how great a job everyone is doing, the University of Alberta needs to admit their shortcomings and give students and faculty clear, accessible information on these issues. Maybe then we can all come together and resolve to make the U of A a better place. And fixing problems begins by owning them.
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