CANADA: Academics call for greater transparency

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has called on the country's universities to open their books so the causes and extent of the financial difficulties facing institutions can be better understood.

The association's Executive Director Jim Turk said his members were worried that university administrators might exploit the current financial climate to make changes that at any other time would be unpalatable to university communities.

"You have this chorus of presidents saying 'woe is me, we're going to have to look at cutting courses, look at possible layoffs, cutting programmes. We're going to have to cut student assistance.' All these things are being floated out there," Turk said.

He said universities were not being transparent enough and there was no way of knowing what was legitimate or not until universities opened their books to faculty associations.

"What is publicly perceived as a crisis can be a convenient opportunity to push through changes that administrators may want even when the circumstances at a particular university don't justify them."

Faculty representatives at a recent CAUT meeting raised questions about whether there was a basis for the claims being made by their particular universities. Turk said most were not able to get access to anything that would verify the extent and nature and causes of the problem.

He said some of the recent deficits could be blamed on universities taking undue risks with their endowments and pensions during the boom years of the 1990s: "They changed their actuarial assumptions so they didn't need to put as much into the plan. And now we're finding that they are facing very significant shortfalls that have to be made up to protect the integrity of the plan."

It was impossible to have a rational discussion about how to address financial problems without an opportunity to assess the circumstances at each university, Turk said.

"For those universities that are having difficulties, we need to look carefully at the nature of the difficulties and the reasons for them so we can figure out the kinds of changes that need to be made."

Turk pointed to what he saw as a dramatic escalation in salaries paid to senior university administrators, and the proliferation of senior administrative positions: "Over the last decade, university presidents and boards have increasingly argued that their reference group are corporate CEOs and they want salaries and perks to be equivalent to what a CEO would earn as opposed to what someone in the public sector would get."

The Canadian Association of University Business Officers declined an interview and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada said their president was unavailable for comment and recommended contacting the Council of Ontario Universities.

COU President Paul Genest took umbrage with Turk's assessment, saying that universities have been very transparent in the way they operated. "We have certainly provided a great deal of information on our website in terms of a portrait of the financial situation of universities across the province," Genest said

He said the global financial crisis had had a major impact on endowments and a "massive impact on pensions". There would be situations when university presidents had to make tough decisions:

"At a time of fiscal constraint, sometimes one has to make decisions about areas that have very low enrolments. That's simply the climate that we're in. You're seeing some of those choices being made and it's painful in every instance but I don't think it's a matter of anything Machiavellian on the part of executive heads."

On the issue of senior administrative salaries, Genest said these represented a tiny proportion of an overall university budget: "You could get rid of the entire senior level of an administration and you would still be seeing a number of our universities trying to wrestle a deficit to the ground."

*Anne Kershaw is a Canadian award-winning writer and communications professional.