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Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Student protests, faculty pensions – connect the dots (special commentary for The Globe and Mail)

Universities don’t dare talk about the connection. But there’s a rather obvious relationship between the thousands of students on the streets of Montreal this month and the billions of dollars in faculty salaries at Canadian campuses.

Universities don’t dare talk about the connection. But there’s a rather obvious relationship between the thousands of students on the streets of Montreal this month and the billions of dollars in faculty salaries at Canadian campuses.

Globally speaking, it may seem unreasonable that Quebec students are protesting against tuition hikes when they have the lowest fees in Canada; even with the proposed increase, they’ll still be at the low end nationally. Despite the students’ ire in Montreal, their cost for the quality of education they receive – and within the context of Canadian per capita income – is still one of the best bargains in the world. Just ask a million Asian families who are sending their children abroad for studies at very high costs and often tremendous sacrifice and financial burden.

Now draw another international connection, which examines salaries of professors at Canada’s universities. According to a recently released study by the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, with data compiled from 28 countries, Canada has the highest salaries for faculty at public universities. (It’s nothing new. Canadian universities have been at the top of this list for years.)

The Quebec student rally made national headlines. It caused a fair bit of inconvenience to drivers in Montreal. But this is nothing compared to what the future holds. There is some serious unrest coming to campuses, to the streets and to Canadian society in general.

Faculty members on Canadian campuses are secure in their salaries. Just ask any vice-president academic how difficult it is to remove a professor from the job. Faculty across the country are looking for increases and, from history, we know that, if they stand unified, they will choke their institutions until they get a raise.

But the elephant is the pensions with which universities are saddled. Those faculty salaries come with generous benefits in retirement. Professors, administrators and support staff leave with pension packages and payouts often amounting to millions of dollars each. People live long lives in Canada. So do spouses, who are often eligible if the beneficiary passes away. University investment funds are not growing to meet these obligations. In fact, many pension funds are still trying to recover losses from recent stock market dips and dives.

So how are universities going to pay off their retired employees?

Some institutions have already petitioned governments to take annual budget losses to cover pensions. But that’s a dangerous game. (In this week’s Ontario budget, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan says the government wants to pool the pension plans of the province’s 20 universities.)

The provinces, of course, are cutting back on university financing. In times of austerity, it’s an easy call to give less money to those perceived to be rich intellectuals sitting in ivory towers. Governments also know that universities have a lot to learn about spending the money they’ve already been given. And unlike politicians, universities don’t have the same public scrutiny or interest in balancing budgets and expenses.

In the hopes of having revenues meet rising costs, many Canadian universities are looking overseas to attract foreign students, who will pay double and triple the domestic tuition fees.

But this is a hyper-competitive environment. While Canadian public universities have never been very good at conducting business off campus, their biggest problem in marketing programs overseas is that, traditionally, they have maintained high academic standards. But very good students are never in large supply, and they have a world of choices. Canada gets its cut, a small slice, but it’s not enough to satiate the growing and desperate hunger for revenue. So Canada has entered a great race to the bottom. Many universities have dumbed down their programs, lowered entrance standards and offered dressed-up “pathway programs.”

Those who took to the streets of Montreal may not win their tuition fight. But they need only be patient. There’s a whole generation ready to pour out onto the streets in protest. Paying for those faculty pensions, sacrificing for those salaries, and all the while getting less in the classroom will stoke the anger of a frustrated generation that feels entitled to a better education.

Mel’s commentary was published as a Special to Globe and Mail Commentary section, on Friday, Mar. 30, 2012

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About Mel

Mel has consulted universities, colleges, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of international education since 1997. He is co-founder of Higher-Edge, the parent of Overseas, Overwhelmed, and a director of the Canadian University Application Centre. He is a former award-winning CBC reporter and holds a Masters degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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