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Nova Scotia Students Surprised and Disappointed by Scale of Dalhousie’s Budget Crunch

Dalhousie University has announced that it anticipates a $17.5 million deficit for their 2013-14 budget. In recent public comments, Dalhousie’s Vice President of Finance Administration, Ken Burt, proposed that the deficit is the result of the institution facing a “perfect storm” in the form of “a reduction in government grants, increased pension costs, and declining student enrolment.” Nova Scotia students are surprised and disappointed by the scale of the shortfall, given the university should have anticipated and prepared for this ‘storm’.

“The deficit amounts to almost $1000 dollars for every Dal student, and we’re being led to believe it came upon the university suddenly and was largely beyond their control,” Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) President Jamie Arron said. “We are deeply concerned about how this will affect students and the university community at large.”

“Enrolment and demographic trends have been clear for quite some time, and the 2010 O’Neill report as well as the MOU between universities and government clearly indicated the direction that the Province was headed with funding,” said StudentsNS Executive Director Jonathan Williams. “This case shows a serious lack of institutional transparency and accountability—the university must have known much earlier that this deficit was coming and decided not to avoid it, because it is simply unbelievable that they didn’t see the signs.”

Students are particularly concerned with the scale of ongoing capital development on campus, and the lack of transparency in costs for those developments. Dalhousie’s ambitious infrastructure expansion has introduced new debt that must be serviced and new buildings that must be maintained, at a time when the school clearly faces more limited resources.

Related to this call for transparency and accountability, students note that the administration has limited their official participation on the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC), the group that will decide how to balance the budget shortfall.

“It is simply unacceptable that there is no student union representative on the BAC”, said Arron. “Students are being asked to share the financial burden through increased fees and reduced programming, but we’re being shut out of the room where decisions are being made. Public consultations don’t amount to inclusion in decision-making.”

The university has suggested that elevated tuition increases may be levied on international and professional students who are not protected by the Province’s 3% cap on tuition growth. These students already pay the highest fees.

“Considering the relatively small totals to be garnered from international and professional student tuition, but the significance of those increases on individual students, this seems like a poor place to start making up a deficit”, said Williams.  “Perhaps university executives should take a leadership role and sacrifice some of their own compensation first, before suggesting cash-strapped students contribute even more.”

Students also worry there will be calls to increase or create new fees for technology or buildings. These fees are not meant to pay for the basic operations of a university. Their introduction on these terms would represent an end-run around tuition regulation and violate the university’s MOU with government.

As Dalhousie’s BAC enters into its consultation process, Students across the province are paying close attention. Students are clear: it is no longer acceptable to conduct so much of public institutions’ management behind closed doors and just ‘consult’ students when they’re needed to help clean up shortfalls.

Kate Elliot