Republished: Religion poll is a waste of paper

My second (and last) editorial in The Gateway while at the University of Alberta, salvaged via the Web Archive. The paper had a policy where writers were forbidden from submitting letters or opinion pieces if they were the subject of the news due to perceived conflicts of interest. I called them out at the time for the absurdity of such a policy.

Continue reading Republished: Religion poll is a waste of paper

Republished: There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

This was the first article I wrote for a student newspaper and in a way it’s somewhat historic. In 2008, the University of Alberta Atheists & Agnostics started campaigning for a secular convocation charge. When our initial request was ignored, I raised the issue with the student newspaper, The Gateway, and they recommend I write an editorial to push the story forward. This is that editorial.

Continue reading Republished: There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

Constructive solutions

I’ve taken two extended posts now to heavily criticize the University of Alberta’s current move to tax students to make up for their growing deficit, but rather than merely oppose, how would I fix the problem?

While I’m no economist (likely a good thing in this case), and don’t have access to the entire financial records, a few methods strike me as immediately effective at easing the deficit crunch that they’re facing.

First off, change has to start at the top. While the combined $2.6 million salaries and benefits of 4 of the executive are not enough to cover the deficit, the leadership must take ownership of not just the success of the university, but also it’s failures.

A 30% paycut to each of the administrators would bring their salaries and benefits down from the mid $600,000s to roughly the level of University of Toronto president’s reported $430,000. Clearly a large, successful school does not need to pad the pockets of its administrators as lushly as the UofA does, especially in these tough economic times. This represents a savings of $780,000 among the top four, and similar cuts across the rest of the administration would likely add up to a million dollars. It may also be higher once all faculty deans and related administrators are taken into account. This move is in part punishment for mismanagement, but also symbolic of the fact that if students must shoulder some increase, than the administrators must also.

Obviously, there will be resistance to a large pay cut and the UofA will lose some of its administrators. To them I say, good riddance. This new higher wave will allow the university to analyze which administrative positions are positively contributing to the university, and which are superfluous positions. Further, fresh ideas from a new crowd could actually help turn the school around. Poach administrators from small to mid-size schools that are not having as much difficultly succeeding in these tough economic times and use their ideas to restructure the UofA so this doesn’t happen again.

Similar to cutting the budgets of the administrators, the university needs to re-examine its role as a contractor. I’ve seen no evidence that contracting out labour tends to save costs, and if anything, tends to exacerbate disparity as contractors tend not to have the protections afforded to university unions.

Next, cancel the Physical Activities & Wellness Centre and other proposed new buildings and halt construction on several others. When I left the university last year there was over $1 billion in construction projects occurring. A lot of that money was coming straight out of the university’s budget, so until they can afford to, no more massive construction projects.

Finally, the hardest suggestion I have is to cap or even decrease enrolment levels for the next few years. While there will be a small loss in revenue by having fewer students enrolled, it will offer a chance to ensure those who are there get a good education, and that the university can afford to teach them. This will also negatively affect high school students who are just at the edge of academically acceptable for the university, however, we ought to be basing university enrolment on academic and not economic merit. I’d rather a poor student with a 95% average got in then a rich one with 75%.

By capping enrolment the university can scale back its absurd vision of its future expansion and focus on the present. This will also ease the pain of freezing capital projects until they are absolutely necessary.

It doesn’t seem like it’s that hard to me to get this deficit under control. Unfortunately the university administration has convinced many students that more money is necessary for a steady-as-she-goes approach. Meanwhile, no one has questioned the actual causes for the current situation, and as the saying goes, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Even more disappointing, however, is that the current hierarchical structure of the university will prevent almost any of these changes from being implemented by the current administration who only stand to lose in this scenario, but win under any other (even the university going under and them taking home giant severance packages). So to affect these changes, students need to get vocal and resist every tax and fee increase.

Tacit acceptance in not an option if you care about the future of the University of Alberta.

Where did the UofA’s money go?

Further to my comments yesterday about the University of Alberta’s Engineering Student Society endorsing plans to tax students, Brendan Taylor, with the Student Worker Action Group of APIRG has linked me to his complete financial analysis of the operating budgets of the UofA (plus many other institutions) over the past decade. To complement his analysis, I thought I’d highlight some striking differences between the UofA and Simon Fraser University (my current school).

First, If we look just at surplus, until 2008, the UofA had a steadily increasing budget surplus while SFU has actually been running a deficit for the past 8 years, only getting the deficit under control in the past year. So while this current deficit may seem radical for the UofA, it seems peculiar and more likely to be in part due to a one-off lost in investments as opposed to evidence that they aren’t ripping students off enough.

Next, we can see that SFUs funding has been mainly attacked by a 12% reduction in provincial funding over 10 years, while the UofA has maintained a constant proportion of provincial funding. That last data point for the UofA getting 15% more funding in 2007-08 represents a large sum of money going only to capital projects. SFU clearly made its budget losses from the provincial government up by raising tuition while the UofA shows a small drop in percentage funding from tuition. However, non-tuition fees at the UofA have nearly doubled in the past decade, and with the proposed COSSS fee and “Market Modifiers” tuition will increase by roughly 20% or more in the next five years.

The UofA has also shifted its budget from the academic ranks and increased benefits and non-academic salaries. The largest increase is the doubling of expenses on external contractors. Meanwhile, SFU slashed academic funding from its budget in roughly 2003-05 and cut other salaries equally. We do notice with SFU a steady increase in student support that is absent from the UofA. This funding likely explains SFUs consistent top-notch performance in comprehensive university rankings.

As I mentioned, the UofA got 15% more provincial funding in 2007-08 than average, but similarly capital costs were up 15% as well, so that more likely represents singular grants for construction costs. This does help confirm the scenario where the UofA tried too hard to expand too fast under the “Top 20 by 2020” mandate that the administration has now disowned.

Brendan’s best graph for the UofA compares the runaway costs to students to cover the runaway costs of the university executive:

Tuition is legislated to rise no faster than CPI, hence the nearly perfect correlation, meanwhile, we can see that before the market modifier tax is applied (which will raise engineering student’s tuition by an additional 10-15% per year) students are already being forced to pay almost exponentially increasing amounts to cover salaries that are fast outgrowing inflation.

Education may cost money, but it’s clear that education is no more expensive then it was a decade ago, the only change has become this competitive drive to “be the best” school which has brought on overpaid bureaucracy and unaffordable expansion.

The free market model of competition between universities does not seem to make them any more efficient, in a story almost identical to Wall Street, we see corporate execs earn top dollar while those on the bottom continue to suffer.

Ashamed of my peers

Picture 54

That’s my naked right pinky finger. On most engineers (who are right-handed) you will typically find a piece of iron (actually stainless steel) that represents their obligation to engineering. I didn’t get mine because I refused, and still do, to sign the Obligation that would have required me to hypocritically betray my conscience while pledging to be honest. While I would still appreciate being offered the olive branch to be included in that ceremony, I’m growing even more ashamed of the people who were once my peers.

Today’s Facebook check brought an invite to the page “Engineers in favour of improving our faculty and supporting the ESS" which lists a statement by the University of Alberta’s Engineering Student Society’s Board of Directors, a body made of up of the democratically-elected presidents of each discipline plus the executive of the ESS.

The statement outlines how the Board has consulted with the faculty administrators and decided that the best when to ensure that the “world class facilities and faculty” are kept in place is to tax students.

Oh wait, they don’t use the word tax, they call it a “Market Modifier.”

Market modifier my ass, the ESS has just sold the average engineering student up shit creek without a paddle.

I’m glad my finger is naked, because I’m ashamed of these tools.

Currently the UofA administrators are pushing forward, almost without protest, a mandatory tax, sorry “Common Student Space, Sustainability and Security Fee,” of $570 per student per semester to recoup some of it’s $57 million deficit. This fee is on top of the market modifiers, so the ESS is proposing that engineering students ought to pay even more than the average student.

But don’t worry says the University and the ESS, some of these fees will go straight back into scholarships!

So to help the un-affordability that extra student taxes are creating, they offer to throw a few bucks back, at only a few students. But don’t worry, titles like “ESS President” look really good on scholarship applications, so our wonderful Board members may be able to get their funds back, plus a little of their peers.

But why is the UofA in such dire straights?

Having the highest paid administrators in Canada can’t have anything to do with it, I mean, combined they only take in $2.57 million. That’s not even counting how much the deans and their staff are bringing in. Their vision of making the UofA “top 20 by 2020” (whatever the fuck that means, remember how they never explained it) has come at the financial stability of the school and now they’re pinning the exorbitant costs on students.

Where’s the lobbying to Stelmach? Where’s the lobbying to Ottawa? These people are also in part to blame.

But instead, you have students being manipulated by these people trying to protect their overpaid jobs.

I thought it was bad enough that far too many engineers are creationists or anti-science climate change denialists. But this takes the stereotypical right-wing engineer to a far new level.

Notice how they even tilt the language, using the word “market” as though a degree is a mere product to be traded, not earned. Entitled shits. Universities used to be about higher learning and expanding your mind. If this is the future of engineering, move it back to technical school and leave university for the actual academic pursuits.

Market modifiers my ass. A tax is a tax, and this is only going to hurt the University of Alberta. Tuition only goes up, and letting them raise it will only screw students in the long run.

I’m glad I got out. I feel sorry for those who will no longer be able to get in.