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Fiscal realities prompt some universities to review all programs

‘No hit list and no sacred cows’ says one provost about the university-wide process.


As universities continue to grapple with ongoing fiscal constraints and demands for public accountability, some of them are undertaking a broad review of their programs and services to determine whether any should be eliminated or revised.

The University of Guelph launched its “program prioritization process” in September, in part to help the university eliminate a projected $34-million budget gap over the next four years . “We need to ensure the long-term financial viability and sustainability of the institution,” said Maureen Mancuso, provost and vice-president, academic, at U of Guelph. “That means having difficult conversations about what we can continue to do and what we have to stop doing.”

Guelph has already trimmed $46 million from its budget over the last four years, mainly through attrition. But the gap continues to widen between revenues and expenses, she said. All academic and non-academic units – from athletics to the president’s office – will be included in the review. “There’s no hit list,” she said “and no sacred cows.”

At a recent campus town hall meeting, Dr. Mancuso and Guelph President Alastair Summerlee faced some blunt questions about possible closures and layoffs. “We have a finite amount of money and increasing costs,” Dr. Summerlee said. “We have to find a way to change what we’re doing … Can I guarantee that at the end of the day this won’t affect people’s jobs? Absolutely not.” The alternative, he said, would be for senior administrators to make the decisions behind closed doors. “We don’t feel that’s appropriate at all.”

Guelph is one of several universities that have embarked on a program review. Others include Wilfrid Laurier University, Vancouver Island University and the University of Regina. For the most part they are relying on a strategy developed by former U.S. college president and consultant Robert Dickeson in his book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (revised and updated in 2010).

Guelph is working directly with Dr. Dickeson to conduct the review. All departments and non-academic units must complete a form detailing the programs and services they provide, enrolment figures and other data. A 21-member Program Prioritization Task Force, comprised of faculty, staff and students, will use the information to produce a ranking of programs and services.

That information will in turn be used by senior administrators to make future budget decisions. “We are not going to apportion the $34 million that we need to find in an across-the-board fashion,” Dr. Mancuso said. The process is expected to take about a year.

Dr. Mancuso said the university intends to make program review a part of its regular planning cycle as it strives to adopt a more evidence-based process for decision making. “We need to change the culture,” she said. The review should be part of “our ongoing efforts to take stock” and should guide the university’s decisions during times of growth as well, she said.

Wilfrid Laurier University launched, earlier this year, a similar process that it calls an Integrated Planning and Resource Management Initiative. “It is important to note that IPRM is not an across-the-board cost-cutting exercise,” said President Max Blouw in a message on the university’s website. “Rather, it is an exercise that will allow us to focus on operationalizing and funding what we are good at and what we need to do to ensure our future success.” Laurier plans to use a template-style method similar to Guelph’s to gather information on academic programs. The results will help determine whether programs should be enhanced, maintained, transformed or phased out.

After completing a similar review, the University of Regina decided to cancel its separate bachelor of fine arts degrees in acting, theatre studies, and design and stage management, and to roll them into a new degree, a bachelor of arts, major: theatre and performance. It also undertook to revise its BA in political science and to introduce a new master’s of health management. Some of the changes are expected to go into effect in 2014.

Vancouver Island University recently completed a review of its 130 academic programs. Most were found to be in good shape and are to be maintained. Four were recommended for cancellation, three were suspended, 20 are to be enhanced, and two expanded. Of the four slated for closure, two weren’t being offered currently and two have very low enrolment. For the suspended programs, the affected units have a year to do an analysis and determine whether they should be redeveloped or cancelled. The proposed changes were expected to go to Senate in November for consideration. Cancelled programs will be phased out gradually and the expansion of others is expected to take three to five years.

“The budget was one factor for sure” in undertaking the review, said Dave Witty, VIU vice-president, academic, and provost, but the main driver was program quality. “To do it right takes a lot of work,” he said. “It’s taxing. It’s disconcerting initially.” But, as the review progressed, people came to realize why the exercise was needed. “I think it’s important for institutions to do that,” he said. “I’d sooner be doing it here than have others doing it.”

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  1. Hope / October 31, 2012 at 15:32

    I am gratified to see that only four institutions of the ninety-two or so listed as members of AUCC are listed in this article. These sorts of program rationalization and elimination are frequently shortsighted when it comes to maintaining academic standards and the centrality of thinking and analysis. Essay-based programs, for example, often have lower enrolments than non-essay curricula. Expect the further “dumbing down” of a Canadian University education in the rush to attract ever greater numbers of students. If academic and educational criteria give way to economic criteria, instead of having the priority in a correct sequence (seek financial sustainability on behalf of academic quality), then we are in serious trouble and will end up with the giant mess being currently experienced in the United Kingdom.

  2. Eric / November 1, 2012 at 17:31


    I find your post thoroughly misguided. “These sorts of program rationalization and elimination are frequently shortsighted when it comes to maintaining academic standards and the centrality of thinking and analysis. Essay-based programs, for example, often have lower enrolments than non-essay curricula. Expect the further “dumbing down” of a Canadian University education in the rush to attract ever greater numbers of students”

    You assume fiscal management in higher education must also mean “dumbing down” the curriculum or delivering seemingly less-rigorous education for our students. It is fair to assume that some policies and practices in higher education have sacrificed scholarly and academic rigour in the name of budgetary efficiency; however, you assume that universities should not be responsible for determining the viability of programs in light of current budgetary realities. You also assume budgetary decisions at all postsecondary institutions are made in a vacuum and that all degree programmes (B.A., B.Sc., diploma programmes) are assumed equal.

    It seems to me we are in a fiscal climate globally where our governments are approaching funding in different ways than what we have experienced in the past; all the more reason academics should be included in the conversation around funding models for higher education instead of letting politicians make decisions.

    We should be focused on making the model of higher education in Canada sustainable for future generations. We should be concerned about providing rigorous education in our postsecondary institutions. We should be concerned about true costs to students and taxpayers. We should be concerned about opening the doors of access to higher education for underrepresented groups and marginalized people.

    Instead of griping about the reality that faces us Hope, consider how to be part of the solution. Our educational quality councils, university senates, and faculty members hold a lot of the power to guide and shape the curriculum in this country. Perhaps we need to consider ways to bolster the input of the experts within such groups/councils to work as guides and resources to administrators tasked to control ballooning costs and maintain high academic standards.

  3. Robert / November 2, 2012 at 09:15

    While re-assessment of academic programs are a necessity in the current economic climate, this review process is including at least a serious flaw or two. The administration if inevitably controlling the process. This immediately raises the specter of bias. We have seen a huge increase in the administration of every university in Canada. They eat up tons of funds and add nothing to the quality of education. Will they really be reviewed? I doubt it. This review also does not speak to the ever present issue of faculty recruitment and the need to begin bringing in young and dynamic faculty. This is where the quality of education will be increased and where the heart of revitalization will be found. Unfortunately, most faculty still cling to older models of thought and often use their position to stifle change.

    Yes review is needed but it will be ineffective so long as it is not transparent and so long as the sacred cow of administration is not on the chopping block with everyone else.

  4. Hope / November 3, 2012 at 17:19


    With respect, I think none of the thoughts you attribute to me, except for the quoted material from my own message at the beginning of your reply. By all means, let’s be part of the solution. I do not at all think that fiscal management has to mean the “dumbing down” of the curricula; however, anyone who has taught in Canadian universities for the last twenty or thirty years, as I have, can tell you that there has been and continues to be a “dumbing down”, mostly driven by economic forces. It does not have to work this way. Financial sustainability can be achieved differently. What I wrote is that “frequently” these large-scale rationalizations of programs are used to support easy (therefore popular, well-enrolled and profitable) subject areas at the expense of harder subjects from which the better students and society benefit. (Of course, I have to exempt professional programs from this objection, because professional programs are both challenging and popular with university administrators because of their high revenues).

    I work hard on several administrative committees to be part of the solution, and it is my opinion that increasingly in Canada senior administrators (like governments) do not put the priority in the right sequence whereby they would seek financial sustainabiliy on behalf of sound educational principles. Increasingly, what I witness, read about and hear about from colleagues is that academic core disciplines and areas of study are being sacrificed for finances and ever-expanding enrollments.

    With Robert, I find myself in complete agreement, especially with respect to the lost generation of talent.