No easy answer in dealing with budget cuts

a/Editorial/Opinion by

Last week, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum unveiled the first round of McGill’s efforts to cut $46 million worth of expenditures in reaction to the recent budget cuts imposed by the government of Quebec. In an email to the McGill community, she highlighted that salaries and benefits make up more than 75 per cent of McGill’s core operating budget. As such, the majority of the measures presented were salary related. While the announcement does present some very real problems, we feel that in a situation with no easy answers, the values that come through are a positive indicator of things to come.

Sifting through the various measures and implications, one thing that stands out is that the administration seems to be showing a willingness to be a part of the solution. The three per cent salary cut for senior administrators is not a particularly large number—especially if it doesn’t include benefits nor bonuses—but it is a start. For now it is a symbolic gesture; but in the unfortunate event that more dire cost-cutting measures are needed, we hope this number will grow as well, rather than cost jobs.

Furthermore, the only direct cuts that the administration made from their own budgets, with the Vice-Principals’ portfolios and the Offices of the Principal and Provost taking a cut of seven to nine per cent. Making these cuts while choosing not to take money from the faculties effectively keeps the direct burden of the cuts away from students. While there will be some inevitable consequences that will fall to students, such as a reduced support staff capacity and fewer opportunities for student jobs on campus, the most immediate factors affecting quality of education, namely course offerings, and professor salaries, are not being touched.

“Making these cuts while choosing not to take money from the faculties effectively keeps the direct burden of the cuts away from students.”

Conversely, it is the administrative and support staff who are being put under pressure. McGill has implemented a freeze on hiring, and on position-rematch and special salary requests. Even though the university’s employee groups have no obligation to open their collective agreements, requests have also been sent to each union to accept a one-year salary freeze. Some are rejecting this motion outright, but it becomes a more complicated equation given the way McGill has framed these cuts—the success of this round of cost-cutting will dictate whether or not the next round needs to involve layoffs.

One criticism of McGill’s efforts is that it drastically differs in comparison with how other schools are handling the budget cuts. The Université de Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) is reallocating funds previously set aside for capital projects to deal with the financial burden. Meanwhile the Université Laval has negotiated a deal with the government. This deal will allow Laval to greatly reduce the cuts it has to make now (only $9 million in the next two years), and have the rest taken from the reinvestment in universities that the government has promised in two years’ time. However, given the number of times we have seen government plans for education change in the past year alone, we agree with McGill’s decision not to rely on the planned reinvestment. If this money does come through in two years’ time as promised, the university will certainly benefit. Until then it is best to be pragmatic, and not risk being taken by surprise later on.

While implementing these budget cuts, we have seen people from all parts of the McGill community look for ways to minimize the harm that the cuts will cause. Notable among these is the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS), and the creation of the Engineering Undergraduate Support Fund (EUSF). This sort of initiative, which puts money into students’ hands, allows spending to directly reflect students’ academic values and priorities. While we don’t feel that this is a responsibility that should necessarily have to fall to students, the persevering spirit behind the project is what will keep our community strong throughout the current challenges we face.

Budget cuts come with tough decisions, undesirable consequences, and necessary sacrifices. However, we feel that this latest development is a step in the right direction. McGill seems to have identified quality of education and research as its top priorities in this process—a principle with which we agree wholeheartedly. We hope that in the future, if more drastic measures are needed, this cohesion can be maintained.