Queen’s faculty and students are speaking out against massive budget cuts that have been revealed by a leaked memo to department heads, directors and chairs and since confirmed.
The university plans to introduce a number of austerity measures in the wake of their projected operating deficit of $48 million, with Provost Matthew Evans sharing the improvement this week from original projections of over $62 million – an improvement attributed to the university’s existing hiring freeze.
The Faculty of Arts and Science is the largest at Queen’s and is facing the most drastic cuts, it accounts for an estimated $30 million of the university’s projected deficit and the budget will be slashed by $12 million next year and another $18 million in 25/26.
Sweeping policy changes that will be enacted as immediately as 2024/25 include courses with low enrolment no longer being offered, reducing the number of teaching assistants and adjuncts, eliminating international student awards, and having PhD students teach more classes.
Staff say they’ve been told to anticipate as much as a 13% reduction in the number of courses taught at Queen’s over the span of the next few years.
Queen’s Coalition Against Austerity (QCAA), a collection of representatives from various unions at Queen’s, says the dramatic cuts are happening too quickly and without proper justification.
On Friday a teach-in was held by QCAA addressing the cuts and whether there’s more wiggle room than the response Queen’s administration has seemingly committed to.
A report posted by QCAA says unfilled positions and budgetary pressures are already causing considerable stress on the staff, stress that will be further compounded and felt by the students as these larger cuts begin to take shape.
QCAA argues that the need for such dramatic measures is being overstated by university administration, citing an independent report that states Queen’s strong liquidity affords Queen’s the financial flexibility to avoid drastic cuts.
The coalition also points to Queen’s projected deficit as potentially disingenuous, considering Queen’s recent history of overestimating budget deficits – with the exception of last year, the university’s actual operating budget deficit has been lower than projected for 5 straight years and an average of $44 million yearly.
Bronwyn Bjorkman, Queen’s department head of languages, literatures and cultures, said at the teach-in that while departments are tasked with making cuts, they’re limited in what they can actually do.
She says ultimately a lot of the immediate impact may be felt in the student experience as departments grasp for options to cut spending – with costs like guest speakers, special events, and student initiatives being the most likely cuts.
“Those are the kind of requests that departments are going to have a much harder time saying yes to,” Bjorkman said.
“That’s less exposure for Queen’s, it’s damage to the student experience… and it’s fewer partnerships with local community.”
Provost Evans sent an email to the Queen’s community acknowledging the attention the school’s financial constraints are generating and trying to explain the situation.
Evans blames the falling revenue on the provincial government’s cutting of tuition in 2019 and subsequent freeze, citing that decision as costing the university $180 million to date.
A report from the province’s expert panel indeed points some blame at the Ontario government for the somewhat dire financial situation of post secondary institutions, with the report highlighting a 10% increase in provincial funding as perhaps the most important step towards sustainability.
The province pays about 57% per student what other provinces do, but say that it’s up to the institutions to look for efficiencies.
Despite the province’s role, Queen’s -who previously declined to comment on the provincial Blue Ribbon Report- projects a larger deficit than most of its counterparts.
In his letter, Evans attributes much of this to the inability to improve international enrolment and says the university continuing to rely on its reserves is an unsustainable course of action.
“Our operating budget has also been hit harder than many other universities in Ontario by falling international student enrollment, which has not recovered as quickly,” Evans says.
“At the same time, costs have increased through inflationary pressures and other costs. The university has so far relied on our financial reserves to cover our operating deficits, but that path is not sustainable.”
Evans says those funds are depleting rapidly, but QCAA points towards increased income in the Pooled Investment Fund (PIF) and the Personal Endowment Fund as resources that could be used to mitigate cuts, and the reluctance to tap into those streams as evidence that the university prioritizes its investments over the quality of education and services it provides.
Evans says in his letter that “immediate pressures require us to take immediate action” looking to build a long term, fiscally sustainable future for education and research at Queen’s.
The budget and proposed cuts will be discussed on Monday December 11 at a Faculty of Arts and Science Town Hall with Provost Evans.
The meeting will be held in Biosciences Complex Room 1101 and virtually from 10 AM-12 PM.