Skip navigation
In my opinion

A taxpayer view of university funding

Or, Steve and Di’s evening on the Internet.

BY IAN D. CLARK | MAR 08 2010

It’s budget season in Canada.

With the federal budget still in the news, Steve and Dianne have agreed to prepare opening remarks for next week’s constituency roundtable organized by their local member of the legislature, who is parliamentary assistant to the provincial minister of finance. The roundtable topic is “How can we preserve high quality universities as we return our province to fiscal sustainability?” Steve and Di are to comment on whether tax increases might be warranted.

Steve works for an insurance company in a division that has been through its second cost-cutting reorganization in three years. Dianne works with a team delivering residential health care services under contract to the local integrated provider funded by the ministry of health. Her group has been downsized as contract budgets have shrunk.

Steve and Di open their laptops and send a joint e-mail to their two undergraduate children, describing their evening’s research plan. They say they intend to use the critical thinking skills they learned at university to evaluate facts and arguments available through the Internet to help them make judgements about the benefits of additional public spending on higher education and to assess whether universities have been doing as much as other institutions to adapt to the changed economic and fiscal environment. Steve will begin with Statistics Canada’s complex but incredibly rich web site while Di will start with publications on higher education.

Nicki, in second-year political science and sociology, fires back an e-mail counselling her parents to avoid a simplistic instrumentalist approach to the question. Universities are not insurance companies or hospitals, she says. They are not there simply for job training or applied research. Our society must, at all costs, preserve places where free inquiry can flourish. Several of Nicki’s professors have told students that academic freedom needs constantly to be defended if universities are to resist the intrusions of corporate agendas. She helpfully includes the link to the Google Book preview for a history of academic freedom in Canada, giving free access to virtually all of its 446 pages.

Carson, in his final year of engineering at a different university, responds with the comment that academic freedom has never been an issue in his classes and he is dubious about its relevance to thermodynamics. As for corporate agendas, he says, “Bring them on,” because he and his classmates are trying to make themselves employable.

For the parents, it’s back to work. On StatsCan’s website, (which still needs some work on its navigation) he finds what he is looking for by going [Home > Key Resources > Publications by Statistics Canada > Income, pensions, spending and wealth > Household, family and personal income > Incomes Trends in Canada 1976 to 2007 > Data Tables > Earnings > Earnings of individuals, by selected characteristics and North American Industry Classification System]. After downloading the Beyond 20/20 browser at no charge, Steve has access to incomes by industry sector. He sees that in 2007 he earned almost exactly the $60,000 median income of university graduates in finance, insurance, real estate and leasing; and Di also happened to earn the $48,000 median income of university graduates in health care and social assistance. He then finds the table on Median market income by selected family types and confirms that they are much better off than the median two-parent family earning $78,900 in 2007. This does not make either of them feel better about the fact that with their combined income of $108,000 they have not been able to make RRSP contributions since Carson entered university. In fact, they took out a second mortgage when Nicki received her offer of admission.

At this point Di says she has come across an Inside Higher Ed story dated November 5, 2008: “Canada Tops U.S. in Faculty Salaries, Report Finds,” referencing a study by researchers at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. From the pdf version of the report, International Comparison of Academic Salaries: An Exploratory Study, she reads that this survey found that, in purchasing power parity terms, Canadian faculty were paid the highest of the 15 countries studied and that entry level salaries in Canada were 13 percent higher than those in the U.S. and eight percent higher at the top level for the 2005-06 academic year.

Steve finds the Stats Can data on faculty salaries at each Canadian university under [Education, training and learning > Teachers and educators >]. The latest figures for the University of Toronto are for 2006-07, when the median salary for a non medical/dental full professor without senior administrative duties was $144,059 and for an assistant professor was $88,330.

Steve compares how salaries have moved over time. Looking at a few universities, he finds that median salaries of a particular faculty rank seem to be increasing at two-to-four percent a year since 2003-04, the earliest year data is available on the StatsCan site. This is in sharp contrast to the situation of university graduates in his and Di’s sectors, where the median salaries for 2007 were lower than in 2001. Steve calculates that when one adds the progress-through-the-range increases of about two percent, Canadian full-time faculty have been receiving annual salary increases of four to six percent.

Meanwhile, Di is reading about academic tenure, starting from the definition on the website of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “Academic freedom is the life blood of the modern university. It is the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. It includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process.”

Working in a unionized environment herself, Di can imagine the challenges faced by academic leaders trying to redirect the teaching and research priorities of a university or trying to encourage productivity improvements. When it comes to disagreements between faculty and administrators, Di wonders whether it is hard to disentangle issues of academic freedom from those of individual performance and institutional priority.

By now, both Di and Steve are interested in how faculty divide their effort between teaching and research. Steve goes to, the website maintained by the authors of a recent book on the forces reshaping higher education in Ontario (Disclaimer from the author: shameless promotion of a new book I co-authored). From the PowerPoint presentation on the site, he learns that faculty are typically expected to spend 40 percent of their time on teaching responsibilities. At many universities, this translates to a 2+2 teaching load: two courses in each of two four-month terms in an academic year. Faculty are expected to spend 40 percent of their time on scholarship and research and 20 percent of their time on service, including service to the university and the discipline and service to the public, such as speaking and writing to a broader audience. The authors argue that this is a very expensive approach to undergraduate education and that no other large jurisdiction in the world tries to do all of its undergraduate teaching in institutions where faculty allocate their time on a research university model. They note that if one accepts the overwhelming evidence that there is essentially no correlation between research productivity and teaching effectiveness, then it becomes easier to imagine less expensive arrangements that yield more teaching effort per faculty salary dollar. They make some suggestions for system reform that would require a stronger role for the provincial government.

From a quick review of U.S. sites, Di immerses herself in the lively discussion of university costs south of the border and reads that some states are taking drastic action to deal with their deficits. The New York Times (November 19, 2008) reported that in the University of California system every professor, administrator and clerical worker has been put on furlough amounting to an average pay cut of eight person. Across the 10 campuses, instructional budgets are being reduced by $139 million, with 1,900 layoffs, 3,800 positions eliminated and hiring deferred for nearly 1,600 positions, mostly faculty. Di reads the online comments on the January 26, 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education story on President Obama’s State of the Union declaration that “it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs – because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.” She perused articles on academic efficiency issues in Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning, including a reference to the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at UBC, where the Nobel prize physicist claims that universities could be more effective at teaching if professors applied the results of available research on how students learn, and if they were less resistant to new technologies.

Steve and Di looked over some of the ideas on the Wieman site and in the Back to the Future article by Alex Usher on the University Affairs site. They begin to imagine several initiatives that might improve teaching performance and efficiency in the universities. They are aware that the Education Quality and Accountability Office website provides information on the percentage of students learning at or above the provincial standard for each primary school in Ontario. They wonder why there is no similar system-wide information on how Ontario universities are performing. They know from their children the concern about large class sizes and wonder what would happen to class size if a substantial number of faculty shifted their emphasis from research to teaching and returned to the 3+3 teaching load that, they have learned, was the norm in earlier times. And they wonder why every faculty member develops his or her own courses. As Carson implied in his e-mail, thermodynamics is pretty much thermodynamics. Most of the introductory courses must be rather similar at all universities. Wouldn’t it make sense for faculty at all universities to share their syllabi, lecture notes, in-class exercises, and the like?

Steve and Di devote the last part of their evening to the research side of the academy. They start with a quick review of the funding decisions on the websites of the three major granting councils – Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – and look at some of the grants recently awarded to professors at the two universities attended by their children.

They then go to faculty websites. Carson’s professors seem to produce five or more papers a year with titles like “Investigation of Sulfate Nanoparticulate Formation from a Catalyzed Diesel Particulate Filter on an Engine Fueled with ULSD and a Biodiesel Blend.” Steve and Di assume such research can be valuable (although they don’t really know).

They also assume that the benefits from research in the humanities and social sciences are more subtle. They have fortuitously discovered the 2002 Killam Annual Lecture on A New Role for the Human Sciences by then-president of the University of British Columbia, Martha Piper. They like her vision that to build a prosperous and humane society, “first, we must encourage knowledge and scholarship that will enable individuals to better understand themselves, their values, and the roles they play as citizens; second, we must pursue knowledge and scholarship that will assist us to define our Canadian identity and our role as global citizens; and third, we must advance knowledge and scholarship in those areas that bear on legislation, public policy, and social programming.”

On the websites of some of Nicki’s professors they see, under recent publications, articles that, on closer examination, turn out to be pamphleteering essays in non-peer-reviewed online journals. Steve and Di doubt these would meet the scholarly standard Dr. Piper had in mind when she made her case for investing more in human sciences research.

Steve and Di realize they should not generalize from professors in one department in one institution, so they generalize from two. They go to the political science website at Carson’s university, where the faculty list is quite different. Steve and Di recognize the names of many professors who appear regularly on television and in national newspapers. Given what appear to be stark differences in research productivity between different faculty members, Steve and Di wonder if the government should consider allocating a portion of the operating grant on the basis of the quality and quantity of research performed, perhaps using data on grants awarded by the three federal granting councils.

Steve and Di follow current affairs closely and appreciate the contribution that scholars make through opinion articles and as experts in journalists’ stories. They think that academics will become even more important to policymaking if Canadian politicians continue to reduce their reliance on the public service for analysis and advice. But they wonder what proportion of the 17,500 full-time faculty in the humanities and social sciences (reported in Trends, Volume 2 for 2006 on the website of the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada), actually do try to connect to a wider public audience.

Before they close their laptops, Steve and Di paste the links of the most informative websites into a draft e-mail to the participants in next week’s roundtable. They will report that they were amazed at how much useful information on university issues one can find in three hours and that they think the Internet has the potential to transform the relationship between citizens and the academy. They plan to recommend that the provincial government ask universities to make even more information available, particularly on teaching effort, including number of courses and students taught by faculty in different departments and in different ranks, and trends in class size.

As odd as it may seem, Steve and Di enjoyed their evening on the Internet and now have a good idea of the position that they will take in their opening remarks next week. They will say that they are more convinced than ever that high-performing universities are vital to the country’s future and they accept the proposition that more faculty time with students would likely improve learning. But, based on their work tonight, they will recommend that before governments ask people to pay more taxes to hire faculty who are paid much more than the median taxpayer, they want the government and universities in their province to work together to enable higher education to keep up with other sectors in controlling costs, managing performance and meeting core responsibilities.

Ian D. Clark is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. He is a former secretary of the Treasury Board of Canada and former president of the Council of Ontario Universities. He co-authored with Greg Moran, Michael Skolnik and David Trick, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *