Mount Royal University students and faculty weigh in on budget expectations

Dave Hancock and David Docherty Though tight-lipped, Alberta's education minister Dave Hancock, is hinting that the upcoming provincial budget may be gentler on Alberta's post-secondary institutions than last year's budget, which slashed $147 million from operating grants.

"The circumstances on the income side have certainly improved, but we still have to pay for the groceries with today's revenue," Hancock said before a meeting with Mount Royal University executives earlier this month.

According to Hancock, funding allocation will reflect what he calls a "period of fiscal restraint" for the province.

Reactions to Hancock's remarks among MRU officials ranged from cautious optimism to apprehension.

Sadiq Valliani, president of the MRU students' association, said he remains hopeful about the level of funding that will be granted to the school.

"There's no doubt that the impact [of last year's budget] on campus for students and administration was difficult," said Valliani. "But in our own conversations with the ministry over the year, we're really confident that the next budget will be much better for the institution."

But Gerry Cross, president of the Mount Royal Faculty Association, said campuses across the province need to remember that "better" is a relative term, given the severity of last year's cuts.

"It's not hard to be much better...no cuts would be better than last year's budget," Cross said. "The more you cut, the harder it is to find things to cut. Even though the cuts this year will not be nearly as great as last year, there still may be some cuts and they may even turn out to be more painful."

Hancock has been meeting with post-secondary executives on Alberta campuses over the past several weeks, discussing each institution's "budget issues and aspirations."

Dave Hancock and David DochertyEducation minister Dave Hancock (right) poses with Mount Royal University president David Docherty prior to budget talks on Feb. 3. Hancock travelled to post-secondary campuses across the province in February to discuss budget “aspirations” with school executives.

Photo by Kyla Bodley
"It's not a question of that the vaults will be opened, it's a question of steady as she goes and let's make the most valuable use of resources that we can," Hancock said.

The depth of last year's budget cuts were a surprise to many colleges and universities, and were a move that left institutions scrambling to make up for the deficit.

Hancock did not say whether any more of the $147-million cut last year would be restored to post-secondary institutions. Last fall, $50 million in funding was restored to institutions in Alberta, and Hancock only said that the province would "look at how [it] can apply additional resources as they come."

Hancock also spoke about the province's tuition freeze, which is a strategy he said is used to keep costs down for students in the wake of cuts.

"We held the institutions hold for the tuition freeze so that they didn't get to collect [funding] from the students, but they didn't collect it from us," Hancock said.

But, MRU policy studies instructor Lori Williams said that while students may not be feeling the impact of budget cuts in tuition fees, they are certainly feeling the effects in the classroom. Williams said the university has had to raise costs for services like parking and printing, while also cutting back on the number of programs and classes offered to students.

"I don't think there's any question about the fact that some of these services we could offer and absorb into our budget, but we just can't anymore," Williams said. "So those costs are being transferred to students. The fact of the matter is everybody is doing more with less, and it's going to have an effect on everybody."

Looking ahead to the upcoming budget, Williams said that while she hopes the province will restore the 7.3 per cent budget cut MRU took in 2013, she fears the institution will take another hit.

"We're worried that we're actually going to be getting more cuts, so we're desperately trying to figure out how to continue to function properly with less money," said Williams.

The 2014 provincial budget is scheduled to be tabled in the Alberta Legislature on March 6.

Editor's note: The Calgary Journal is owned by Mount Royal University, and managed by students and faculty of MRU's journalism program.

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