“We have to keep telling our story,” Principal says

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum has a lot on her plate as she prepares for the provincial Summit on postsecondary education in Montreal next week while dealing with a sudden budget crisis brought on by recently announced government cutbacks. She found time to share her thoughts on some critical issues with The Reporter on the eve of the Summit.
“The government’s additional cuts are dramatically exacerbating an already precarious situation,” says Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Owen Egan

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum has a lot on her plate as she prepares for the provincial Summit on postsecondary education in Montreal next week while dealing with a sudden budget crisis brought on by recently announced government cutbacks. She found time to share her thoughts on some critical issues with The Reporter on the eve of the Summit.

The question on most minds at McGill at the moment is how the Quebec government’s cutbacks and policies are going to affect the University as a whole. While the situation clearly remains in flux, can you shed any light on what will happen here?

It is still too early to say exactly how these cuts will affect McGill, though we know they will be significant. They will have an impact on everyone at McGill – students, professors and staff.

Last December, the government told us that it is cutting funding to Quebec universities by $250 million in total in this current fiscal year and next. For McGill, that amounts to about $19 million per year in base, for a total of $38 million in base, over two years.

Moreover, the government has also told us that we must cut our expenses by at least half of that amount (in our case, $19 million) by the end of April 2014 if we are to avoid even steeper cuts to our grants.

These reductions in support for higher education are unreasonable, and will hurt all of Quebec’s universities. As I described to our Board of Governors last week, these cuts (against a backdrop of significant and sustained underfunding) fundamentally threaten the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education in Quebec.

Universities need predictable and sustained financing in order to fulfill their missions. We’re now dealing with the fourth major change in Quebec funding for universities within 10 months. Less than a year ago, we were promised new revenues. These cuts then represent a government-manufactured crisis that is curtailing our ability to plan for the future to offer our programs, to effectively compete with other provinces and nations around the world. Many of our peer jurisdictions are increasing spending on post-secondary education, in stark contrast to the situation that we see in Quebec today.

The Provost and the Vice-Principal (Administration & Finance) have been holding Town Halls on the budget cuts. These were set up to explain the budget situation and to gather suggestions for dealing with it. Everything is on the table. At the same time, we must give priority to preserving our academic quality. We must protect and preserve our mission as a publicly purposed, student-centred and research-intensive university. But everyone will have to do more with less during this period of funding crisis. Given that more than 70 per cent of our operating budget is dedicated to salaries, it seems that it will be impossible to avoid staff reductions.

Just how has underfunding hurt us as a university?

The percentage of our operating budget devoted to student services ranks 11th out of 15 Canadian universities with medical schools, and we already have major deferred maintenance – more than $620 million. Our pension deficit is more than $100 million coming out of 2012 and our accumulated deficit for McGill is now $275 million (according to GAAP) and will increase as a result of this round of cuts.

Notwithstanding our significant efforts and progress in increasing financial supports and services for our students, our professorial compensation is not where it should be.

Because of this, we lose professors and researchers and we are increasingly challenged to leverage external funds with internal matches in order to pursue priority initiatives and innovation in our programs, so as to keep McGill competitive with our peer institutions globally. We are increasingly constrained by a lack of adequate resources.

You’ve described the upcoming Summit on higher education as a farce. Is it worth showing up? Some student groups have already announced they are boycotting because they feel their priorities won’t be seriously addressed. What’s the point of being there?

I always prefer to be present to communicate the importance of higher education and the need in Quebec for stable, adequate funding to support a vigorous, viable and accessible post-secondary education system. Our position – which is based on evidence – is that Quebec universities are underfunded by more than $800 million a year. The government’s additional cuts are dramatically exacerbating an already precarious situation for Quebec’s research and educational programs and people, which, despite claims to the contrary, are globally well managed and well governed.

So how do universities persuade Quebecers that the money invested in these institutions is indeed well managed, well spent and represents an enormous investment in Quebec society?

We have to keep telling our story.

Quebec universities’ spending on administration is in line with the Canadian average. We are committed to accountability. What we ask everyone to understand in return is that it costs money to be accountable; it costs money to provide the modern services and supports required to succeed today.

Many of these our predecessors never had to think about. It costs money to properly manage a large, complex institution, one that has grown incredibly, and incredibly more complex than the university of 10 or 20 years ago.

You know, aside from our nationally and internationally acclaimed academic performance, McGill’s credit rating from Standard & Poor’s, for example, is one level above that of the Province of Quebec. Our credit rating from Moody’s is the same as that of Quebec. We have been ranked a Top 100 Employer and praised for our workplace culture by recognized Canadian organizations. Our budget process has won a prestigious North American award two years in a row. All of that is evidence of good management.

The Canadian government estimates that 75 per cent of new jobs in the coming decade will require post-secondary education, and many of these, professional training and advanced degrees. This further highlights the importance of the choices that Quebecers must make about funding higher education – and the grave risks of under-performing.

Higher education benefits everyone. A well-educated population is healthier, needs fewer costly social services, and contributes more tax dollars to the public good. A university education also benefits the individual, through personal happiness, significantly higher wages, and increased employment opportunities. Industry and community and social organizations require a well-educated, adaptable, creative and internationally savvy workforce to succeed. And, a well-educated society has stronger democracy.

We have to continue to impress upon Quebecers the enormous benefits universities bring – not just in financial terms, like the more than $5 billion we generate at McGill each year for the Quebec economy – but the advancements in health care, education in general, science and technology, social understanding, and building a better world both at home and abroad.

If the government were to do another U-turn and suddenly decide that, yes, universities are worth a larger investment, what would be McGill’s spending priorities if we had the resources we need?

Our priorities are clear and have been. We would continue to tackle our areas of greatest need: deferred maintenance, professorial compensation, and support to students – both graduate and undergraduate – setting more money aside for student aid so that we could truly get to where I would like to be, a situation where every qualified student can come to McGill irrespective of financial means.

We will continue our policy commitment of spending 30 per cent of all net new tuition revenue on improving student support and accessibility, while being able to offer more competitive compensation and academic support for professors.

We would build financial stability by reducing our accumulated deficit and we would invest in expanded, modernized space for multidisciplinary teaching and research by tackling urgent repairs to our buildings and modernizing teaching and research spaces to accommodate 21st-century demands.

This would support as well our continued innovation in how we teach and conduct research, in how we engage with our community, so that we remain one of the world’s leading universities, bringing top students, top academics and top managers here, to Montreal and to Quebec, where they may share their talents and enthusiasm to building a better, healthier, more vibrant society.