At the inaugural 2015-16 UVic Board of Governors meeting on Sept. 29, members were briefed on the university’s response to a recent sexual assault as well as August’s employee harassment situation and President Jamie Cassels’ presentation to provincial MLAs on post-secondary funding, which includes proposed tuition increases to professional programs like law.
Michael Kennedy brought up the sexual assault that occurred on campus on Sept. 26, and said that the “first concern is for the individuals involved, and the university’s providing every support needed.” He thanked the Saanich Police for their involvement. In a later part of the meeting, Cassels brought up allegations that surfaced in August about a UVic employee sexually harassing co-workers, saying that the situation had “been dealt with,” and that it was an opportunity to improve existing policies and reaffirm UVic as a safe inclusive workplace.
PROVINCIAL LOBBYING EFFORTS
Cassels summarized his presentation to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services on Sept. 15. [link] [Hansard transcript] According to Cassels, UVic responded to provincial requests for austerity in the wake of the 2008 recession by deferring maintenance (an estimated $489 million worth as of 2014), enlarging classes, and reducing staffing levels. He then outlined six ways that the B.C. government could improve support to universities:
- Increasing government grants with inflation
Currently, the province provides 51 per cent of UVic’s yearly budget (tuition makes up 36 per cent). The government reduced UVic’s provincial operating grant by 2.5 per cent from pre-2010 levels to meet its austerity goals, and in the meeting transcript, Cassels said to committee members that “universities clearly did their part in trying to reduce the pressure on the public purse, and we’re happy to have been able to contribute that way. However, it is absolutely critical that we not make more tradeoffs against quality.” Cassels thanked the government for alleviating one burden by agreeing to fund union-negotiated salary increases, but said that with increasing enrolment and inflation, stagnant operating grants would not be enough to maintain a high quality of education.
- Stable funding to the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF)
The BCKDF provides research funding for public post-secondary institutions, research hospitals, and other non-profit agencies. Cassels said that stable, predictable funding for this program would help the university plan for the long term.
- Restoring a graduate student scholarship program
B.C. had a graduate student fellowship program “about 10 years ago,” but it came to an end five years ago, so he said that “our province is at a competitive disadvantage.” Cassels acknowledged the talent and strength of UVic’s graduate students, but said that other provinces have more funding to attract top graduate students.
- Possible tuition increases for professional programs
Cassels asked for “some limited flexibility on tuition in professional programs” where students can expect more lucrative careers. Such programs, which include Law, Engineering, and Business, cost more to administer than typical arts and sciences programs, but due to caps, he said that UVic would either have to cross-subsidize those programs with funds from less-costly programs, which he said was not fair to other students, or reduce quality. He did not specify what the proposed fee increases might look like or what faculties would be affected.
During the BoG meeting, elected student member and UVSS chairperson Brontë Renwick-Shields asked Cassels how such increases would affect access to low-income students. Cassels said that UVic was in the process of increasing law school tuition some years ago before the province decided to cap tuition to inflation, but had that tuition increase been fully implemented, 25 per cent of revenue would go into a needs-based bursary program. Due to that tuition cap, such a bursary program was never implemented.
- Borrowing funds for residences
UVic wants to take on debt to fund building projects, but the province does not currently allow it, even if it does not borrow taxpayer money. Cassels said he understood the rationale because if a university takes on debt from any source, it is reflected on the provincial balance sheet, but reiterated that UVic has a critical residence shortage and wanted this borrowing restriction lifted. In the meeting transcript, Cassels said that “We could have the cranes swinging tomorrow at no cost to the taxpayer. But it’s considered provincial debt, and we therefore need some assistance in getting a green light to finance those projects.”
MLA John Yap asked if the university had considered “a creative way to do it off-book” to meet provincial requirements on debt, and Cassels responded that alternatives such as various public/private partnerships were evaluated and deemed inappropriate. In his verbal summary to UVic’s board of governors, Cassels said that solutions like arms-length corporations were appropriate for universities with complex real estate holdings like UBC (which builds luxury condominiums), but not for UVic.
Renwick-Shields asked Cassels if lifting this borrowing restriction would eliminate the need for increasing residence fees over 10 years, but Cassels said that the province would not allow such a reallocation.
- Additional funding for deferred maintenance
In a 2014 re-evaluation, external contractor VFA Canada valued UVic’s deferred maintenance costs at $489 million. This estimate, which includes both academic and residence buildings, would cover projects like seismic upgrading, safety features like improved ventilation for the science buildings, and retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency.
Cassels praised the UVSS’s partnership with Elections Canada in a pilot project to allow advance voting on campus for students regardless of riding. He also went over UVic’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and its involvement with the United Way.
VP Academic and Provost Valerie Kuehne discussed a recent City of Victoria report that recommended building a post-secondary campus downtown. UVic is preparing a response to this report, but Kuehne said that expanding its presence beyond existing properties like the Maltwood Gallery is not currently being explored.
VP Research David Castle reported that UVic did not receive funding from the first round of the Canada First Excellence Research Fund (CFERF), even though UVic’s proposal was deemed to meet the requirements. Castle said the feedback was useful and would be applied to UVic’s application for the second round of funding.
The next Board of Governors meeting will take place on Nov. 24 at 11 a.m. in the Senate and Board Chambers.