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City mayors come to the defence of their universities

Stand up to government rather than capitulate to bad policy, urges one mayor.


At a time when many universities and colleges are facing severe and unexpected spending cuts by their provincial governments, several are finding political solace in an unexpected place – the mayor’s office.

In Alberta, the mayors of the two largest cities have come out swinging on the side of their postsecondary institutions after the province tabled a budget cutting more than seven percent from the universities’ operating spending. In other parts of the country, too, city mayors have been speaking up to support their universities.

“I’ve seen it before,” said Olivier Marcil, vice-principal, external relations, for McGill University, “but it’s clear that more and more cities are really aware of their [universities’] impact.”

In Alberta, where universities are facing tough decisions about layoffs, program cuts and salary freezes, Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi publicly urged the province “to realize they made a terrible error in public policy” that will have an impact on “generations of students” as well as the community. His comments followed a speech given a few weeks earlier by Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, who said the province’s move to cut postsecondary education funding showed “short-term thinking” and wasn’t real leadership.

The Alberta budget, tabled March 7, reduced operating spending for the postsecondary sector by $147 million, or about seven percent. It is viewed as a nine-percent reduction by universities because the government had previously pledged to increase their spending by two percent.

Jim Lightbody, a University of Alberta political science professor specializing in municipal politics, said it is “the first time in a very long time that a mayor has felt it necessary, first in Edmonton and now in Calgary, to come to the defence of universities. That is because the provincial government has created an artificial fiscal crisis and has tried to find vulnerable targets for cost cutting rather than changing their revenue-generating side of the budget.”

Dr. Lightbody said he believes a mayor who defends universities can be helpful to their cause. “One of the most effective lobbyists is someone with no personal interest in the outcome,” he said. The Edmonton mayor’s support was unexpected, he said, “and it did cast the debate, for a short time, in a different light.”

In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi not only criticized the government for its move to cut postsecondary spending but also sent a letter to Mount Royal University, calling on “MRU to stand up to the provincial government on behalf of its students, faculty, and community, rather than capitulate to the government’s bad policy.” Mount Royal, where Mr. Nenshi taught business before entering politics, had announced that it would suspend new enrolment for the 2013-14 academic year in eight programs leading to a diploma, certificate or transfer, to help make up the shortfall in its operating budget.

Hope Henderson, MRU’s vice-president, university advancement, said the university welcomed the mayor’s defence of universities. “We do appreciate his support,” she said.

Other Canadian mayors have also defended their city’s universities in recent months. “Too often, governments, citizens and business people are blinded by the cost of our postsecondary institutions, without considering the benefits,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage in a recent opinion piece. “There is no asset that Halifax has that is more important, or of greater strategic value, than our six universities and the community college.”

Montreal’s mayor, Michael Applebaum, has said publicly that universities need to be well-funded to ensure their quality and excellence. Mr. Marcil, the McGill vice-principal, noted that even though higher education isn’t a municipal responsibility, mayors are increasingly recognizing the institutions’ social and economic importance. “McGill has a $5.2 billion impact on the city – of course, when we’re at risk, it concerns the mayor of Montreal.”

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  1. isabel Sullivan / April 24, 2013 at 14:53

    What are the mayors of Francophone areas doing to show support? Quebec City, Sherbrooke? 3Rivers , Rimouski?

  2. Ken Mitton / April 24, 2013 at 15:51

    GO Mayors! I’m Canadian, graduated Grand Centre HS, CFB Cold Lake, Alberta, and began Carleton University in 1980. As a Professor in 2013 (Oakland University, MI) tired of getting blamed by conservatives for high tuition, I wrote a blog myself exploring the cost of education versus tuition. In 1980, full-time tuition was $1,200 for fall and winter terms combined at Carleton and Oakland. Now tuition is about $5,700 in Canada and $10,400 US here at OU! That will be my Son’s first year tuition cost come September. Being a scientist, I had to look at inflation, and based US inflation that $1,200 should only be about $3,800 today. Why $6-10,000 for tuition? Professors do make more than in 1980, but the increase is just from inflation like most other sectors of our economy. So can’t be my luxurious Toyota Yaris. However, States and Provinces have decreased their percent contribution to student education cost, roughly from 70% to 25%. The cost of education is ever shifted to the tuition component. That is why Canadian students will be spending a few thousand more than expected from just inflation. Overall, Provinces are better than my State (Michigan), but they are heading there. What can you expect? First, >70% of students in 4-year programs taking 7-8 years to complete their degree. That has been the situation here for a decade. Second, this situation in turn means higher drop out rates. 90% of my students work one or two jobs and are take 2-3 courses per term, not 4 or 5. The definition of “full time” at many US colleges in 2013 would have made you “part time” in 1980.

    Disinvestment in our next generation’s education is not going to be good for society or business.

  3. Lee Ellen Pottie / April 24, 2013 at 18:52

    This is such a great initiative by the mayors and should be brought up at the 31 May to 3 June Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) AGM in Vancouver.

    So many cities, not just the major ones of Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, and Toronto are seeing huge cuts to post-secondary educational institutions, which will, in turn, have a significant impact on the cities themselves.

    Please contact to learn more and to ask to add this to the agenda.

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