U of C faces tuition hikes, job cuts and spending reductions to offset $25M funding loss

Increased tuition, layoffs and spending cuts on campus are strategies the University of Calgary will use to cope with a $25-million loss in provincial funding.

Successive cuts have cost 550 jobs and $87M since 2019, university president says

MacEwan Student Centre houses the main campus bookstore, a food court, pub and the student union office. (University of Calgary)

Increased tuition, job cuts and spending reductions on campus are strategies the University of Calgary will use to remain financially sustainable after a $25-million loss in provincial funding.

The UCP government's 2021 budget included a reduction of 5.4 per cent, or $135 million, for the operations of Alberta's universities and colleges. It was the latest cut in the government's multi-year plan to reduce its funding contributions for post-secondary schools.

At a virtual town hall on Monday, U of C president Ed McCauley provided a fiscal update that laid out a stark financial reality: its budget has now been reduced by 18 per cent since 2019. McCauley said that translates to a loss of 550 jobs, 200 initiatives and projects and $86.9 million overall.

While the university was prepared for financial losses, the consequences of the successive cuts have resulted in a reduction in staffing, changes to service levels and an increase in tuition and fees, McCauley said.

"It's a big number," McCauley said. "The key piece is that we always look to minimize the affect on our workforce … [and] we'll look toward attrition, retirement and resignations [for job cuts]."

Continued uncertainty

McCauley said the U of C expects even deeper cuts in the coming years, and the university will hike tuition by seven per cent next year in order to offset some of its losses.

It has been consulting with students about the increase, McCauley said, and trying to enhance opportunities for experiential learning with local businesses.

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But students' union president Frank Finley told CBC News that budget cuts and tuition hikes signal to current and prospective students that the university is a riskier investment.

"What students are seeing here is that there is continued uncertainty, and the expectation of huge government cuts that are going to make their education more expensive, less successful and perhaps even lesser in educational quality," Finley said.

'A horrible position to be in'

Students are facing another pandemic summer that will make jobs hard to come by, Finley said.

According to polling conducted by the students' union, about a third of students faced unemployment during the summer last year, which Finley said makes saving for rent and school fees extremely difficult.

This makes tuition hikes painful for students in ways that they wouldn't be otherwise, he said.

"Some students are going to have to choose between paying rent and eating and paying their tuition, and that is a horrible position to be in," Finley said.

"The provincial government should follow the best economic data available and invest healthily into our public institution … cutting massive amounts from post-secondary institutions is going to harm the economy in Alberta."

Creating new economic opportunities

When commenting on Budget 2021 last month, Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said it has been designed to create efficiencies and benefit taxpayers.

"We're not on a path of cost-cutting, we're on a path of delivering government services most efficiently," Toews said.

"I believe every government should be constantly evaluating programs … to ensure that we're providing taxpayers with best value."

For his part, McCauley said he wanted students to know the university is working with them amidst the cuts, and will try to improve bursary support around student programs and access.

But like Finley, he also said he wanted to emphasize the contributions the university makes to the province's economic landscape.

"We recognize the fiscal realities that the province is facing," McCauley said.

"But the University of Calgary allocates our precious resources to improve student experience and have an impact by improving the world around us, by creating those new economic opportunities."

With files from Carla Minogue and Elise von Scheel