A Response to Tim O’Neill’s Report on the University System In Nova Scotia (Part 3)

By Michael Manson
System Restructuring
There is little, if any, doubt that teaching and research are expensive activities to establish and maintain. The report concedes that point. But what it does not do is to examine the administrative costs of each institution – and that despite the detailed analysis of expenditures wherein salaries are discussed (in the Outlook Section) which reveals interesting data. The growth in faculty salaries over the last 10 years has been 46% when compared with non-ranked faculty, staff and administrators (56%).

Now, we all know that support staff, if not also non-ranked faculty salaries, are hardly high, so the 56% increase would not be largely reflected there. But what of administrators’ salaries and benefits? The figures in dollar values do not appear in the report. But the percentages spent by province show that while the expenditures for instruction and non-sponsored research declined by 3.6% between 1999-2000 and 2007-08, administrative expenditures increased by .4%. How, then, can anyone argue that expenditures for faculty are having a deleterious effect on the universities’ ability to operate without considering the administrative costs? Not all of the .4% will be accounted for by administrative salaries. Nonetheless, it would be eye-opening and useful if Dr. O’Neill had provided the dollar amounts for administrators, including deans who are now categorized as instructional faculty. It has been apparent to me, as to many of you, that there is probably administrative bloat in the universities. Certainly, that seems to be the case at the university closest to where I now live. At CBU even before I retired, the number of administrative positions seemed misaligned when compared to the number of faculty. Knowing the cost of administrators would have helped either to confirm or deny the intuitive belief that administration, if not running amok, is growing or at least becoming insupportably expensive. To claim, as Dr. O’Neill does, that it would “require a much more detailed knowledge of each of each institution than could reasonably be developed in the time available” (68) seems to me to evade the issue. Each institution has a budget for 2010-11 which ought to be available, and all Dr. O’Neill needed to do was to tell the government that he wanted to look at those and so needed a little more time before submitting his report.

I come now to what, for me, is the most significant section of the report, and the one that is also the greatest irritant. That is the discussion of CBU. Dr. O’Neill states that “It is arguable, in fact, that the issue of local availability is significantly relevant only in one instance. Cape Breton University is the only one of the non-urban institutions that relies heavily on its local area for enrolment. (104). Having said that, he then goes on to avoid any discussion of why the institution exists, what it would mean for Cape Bretoners should they be faced with the prospect of having either to go off-island or not enrol at all and what would be lost were the university in a position of having to curtail some of its programs. Doing so would be a retrograde measure that would make the university go back to the future, becoming in some programs a two-year transfer institution as it was when I arrived in 1977. When what was then UCCB got degree-granting status in 1980, I believe it did so because of the need to have a full range of programs available for the students of Cape Breton, many of whom, as I have already said, would not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend a university. The university now provides a full range of programs in which enrolments fluctuate as they do everywhere. But to curtail the university’s offerings at this point would be to deny the financial difficulties and the economic situation that exists, as I have noted above. What Dr. O’Neill is suggesting is precisely what he criticizes earlier in the report when he talks critically about lower income families subsidizing those who are better off. If that is true in general, surely it is also true should CBU be forced to curtail its offerings, leaving Cape Bretoners in the position of subsidizing programs at other institutions. Consistency is amiss.

Were the island’s population better off economically, one might well make the case that Dr. O’Neill does when he says that the university has not defined “any particular area of strength or specialization which it would use to market to student [sic]” (115). He is wrong. Clearly, the university cannot be what Dal or St. Mary’s are, nor should it aspire to be. But its major strength lies in the diversity of programs that it makes available to students who are looking for a solid undergraduate degree. Dr. O’Neill seems to confuse breadth in programming at the undergraduate level with a lack of definition of areas of strength.

The university also offers entrance to those who may not meet the qualifications to attend a Dalhousie or any of the universities in Nova Scotia or, indeed, Canada. But it does so with the understanding that it is giving those students an opportunity to show that they are serious about university work and are able to handle it. The quality of the student who comes out at the end of a program is often indicative that such a policy works. Removing the range of courses or programs and forcing students to apply elsewhere would, in my view, undercut that possibility and erase any potential they have of creating the benefits to society that the report acknowledges are there.

This is not to say that CBU has done all it should to recruit students from off-island. I don’t know whether the situation in recruitment has improved since 2005 when I left. At that time, it seemed to me that one area that was not fully tapped was New England, let alone those the report identifies. The marketing information might well emphasize the relatively low cost of attending CBU compared to staying in the US, even though the dollar has edged slightly above the US dollar. That is more likely than not temporary.

Performance Indicators

I conclude with a few remarks about performance indicators. Given that government and taxpayers want to know whether their dollars are being spent properly and with success, it seems on the face of it that performance indicators are a good idea. I have no doubt that if performance were assessed quantitatively and qualitatively, the province’s universities would do well. That holds especially true for CBU despite the rankings in MacLeans and elsewhere and despite the reputation it has. But the devil is in the detail. That is, the question of how to measure things such as outputs is one major issue that has to be addressed. And despite the literature on performance, I wonder how one measures things such as the quality of the faculty, especially when elements of workload such as teaching load and, thus, time and resources to do research vary across the PSE institutions in the country. Teaching evaluations are notoriously unreliable because there is so much noise in the data that doesn’t get accounted for. So, too, are things like educational processes which include class size, equipment available, and the number of books and journals the library holds or has access to. Most important are the universities’ budgets which affect all the above and more. What constitutes “effective teaching and learning” which Dr.O’Neill cites as a place to begin, by quoting from the Higher Education Council in Ontario? What are the measures that are to be used to determine whether they exist in any particular university? Polling students is a mug’s game since there are so many factors that students introduce into their assessment that have little or nothing to do with quality; this often makes data collected in the various student polls more problematic than useful. Equally important are the entrance requirements at each institution which obviously vary and so any useful comparison of effective teaching is fraught with difficulties, not to speak of the students’ commitment to their education and their often unavoidable need to hold one or even two part-time jobs in order to help offset their costs.

The report cites Finnie and Usher’s statement that skill sets attained by the end of the degree “’includes everything from employment, income and job satisfaction, to civic participation in continued education’” (128), whatever that final item means. But income is not necessarily related to the quality of the outputs nor is job satisfaction. One may well begin a job that appealed in the first instance but that becomes a disappointment after a while or in the medium term. And surely we would not want to measure success in education by salary or wages are since many choose to enter the workforce for altruistic or other reasons, knowing that their income will be relatively low compared to those who are doctors and other highly paid professions.

Finally, Dr. O’Neill correctly points out that university administrators and faculty suspect any picture that is painted with a “summary use of available data and so is incomplete (130). But he goes on to argue for developing a publicly available quality assessment report on each institution, and, possibly, for the university system” (130). My response to that argument is simple. If the picture is of dubious reliability, why present it, and why claim it is useful? Dr. O’Neill’s call for assessment seems to me to be yielding to pressure from government, and perhaps the taxpayers, even though what would be presented is not reliable.

I have obviously written what many who were at CBU when I was there would call either one of my short or one of my long speeches. Let me plead that when I agreed to respond to the O’Neill report, I thought it would not serve anyone’s interest simply to provide bullets to the points that I have dealt with. Dr. O’Neill leaves holes in his report which I felt were important to point out and address, just as I thought it important to argue my case when I disagreed with him. If CBU’s senior administration allows the report to go unchallenged, that would be a serious error. But I also think that the Senate and the CBUFA must each respond directly to the government independent of what President Harker and/or the Board might say. I realize that doing so entails a lot of work, but if CBU does walk backward into the future without any objections from its faculty, administration and CBUFA, there will be no recourse available to respond to what the government puts on the table. I hope my comments prove useful.
[end of part 3 of 3 parts][part 2][part 1]

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