Senate: McGill not planning budget cuts linked to endowment performance

By Chris Chipello

While the turmoil in global financial markets has caused some major universities to warn of budget cuts next year, the picture appears less bleak at McGill.

There are no plans to trim the amount coming from McGill’s endowment for the year starting next June, Provost Anthony Masi told the Senate at its Dec. 3 meeting.

Unless the endowment fund’s performance turns out to be worse than currently expected, Prof. Masi said, he doesn’t anticipate having to make any offsetting spending cuts. Because the fund has been managed conservatively, “there’s still some leeway available to us” to maintain distributions without touching its capital, he said.

The fund reported a market value of $917 million as at May 31.  It currently provides around $45 million in annual payments to the University.

In briefing the senators on planning for next year’s budget, Masi noted that Quebec tuition fees are by far the lowest in Canada.  Yet the province’s grants to universities – if calculated on a per-student basis – are no longer the most generous in the country – making it tougher for McGill to hone its competitive edge against universities in other provinces.

McGill wants to reduce the ratio of undergraduate students to tenure track professors to 15:1 from the current level of 20:1, Prof. Masi said.

At the same time, there are only three graduate students per tenure-track professor – a ratio that could be raised to 5:1 by admitting more graduate students, Prof. Masi said.  That would require some increase in research space – a goal that might be achieved by managing classroom space more efficiently and reallocating some of it to research.

Under recent changes to Quebec guidelines, universities are allowed to increase tuition for international undergraduates in six disciplines: Engineering, Management, Pure Sciences, Mathematics, Computer Science and Law.

The liberalization reflects the government’s decision to shift responsibility for funding these students to universities over the next six years.  During that period, the province will phase out the grants it provides to universities to support these students, while gradually allowing the schools to keep more of the international student tuition fees in these disciplines.

Masi said McGill would like tuition fees to be deregulated for all international undergraduates. Restricting the change to specified disciplines is  “a very difficult thing to manage,” he said. “We think it should be person-based, rather than program-based.”  Applications from U.S. and overseas students were up last year, even with the Canadian dollar trading at around par with the U.S. currency, Prof. Masi said.  But the recent economic crisis could make U.S. families less inclined to consider study opportunities outside the country, he cautioned.