Students in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen’s University are speaking out against potential policy changes they say will negatively impact their educational experience at the university. Last week, in a memo publicly leaked by a group of concerned students, Faculty of Arts and Science Dean Barbara Crow outlined a list of sweeping policy changes which will be implemented in time for the 2024-25 school year. The memo was addressed to Arts and Science department heads, chairs, and directors, in advance of a Committee of Departments meeting on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, the minutes for which have not yet been released to the public.
According to the memo, the policy changes are a result of a the university’s $62.8 million deficit, with Arts and Science responsible for $30 million of that debt. Since March, the Faculty’s Budget Advisory Committee has been looking for ways to address the deficit; the Dean’s memo contains a long list of policy changes which are indeed to reduce the Faculty’s share of the debt.
Among the changes, beginning in September 2024, undergraduate courses in Arts and Science must have a minimum of 10 students; otherwise, the course may be cut by the administration. Meanwhile, beginning in September 2025, graduate courses will need to maintain a minimum of five students. It should be noted that exemptions to the policy may be granted by the relevant deans to enable certain courses to operate below the threshold.
The Faculty of Arts and Science will also be implementing a hiring freeze on administrative staff positions, as well as on replacements for retiring faculty members. Only positions deemed “critical” by the Faculty Office will be eligible for exemptions from the policy. In cases where departments lose pre-tenured faculty members, the departments may apply to redistribute that salary in order to hire a new faculty member.
According to Ethan Chilcott, a fourth-year student in Classics and Archaeology, students have not officially been informed of the changes, many of which will be in effect by the next school year. Chilcott said he only heard of the changes when they were mentioned by professors in his program: “Everyone knew about the deficit issue because we discussed it at the start of the year. But the actual nature of the cuts was something [we] began to hear about from professors or graduate students who were more familiar with what was going on.”
Chilcott added, “Departments were told in October about the scale of the planned cuts, and then professors started referencing it to students… They weren’t actively pushing students to do anything about it, but they just made us aware.”
While Chilcott and some of his classmates had heard about potential cuts to more specialized programs throughout the Faculty, he was not aware of the full extent of policy changes until Dean Crow’s memo was leaked last week.
“Initially, I only really heard about it in the context of the languages [program], but then when we actually looked into it, we started seeing things like the full extent of the Dean’s memo, [and] we realized how wide-ranging the cuts are,” he said.
With sweeping policy changes set to hit Arts and Science beginning next year, Chilcott is worried about how his and other programs will be impacted, especially given the new minimum enrolment requirements. He pointed out that in his and other departments, upper-year undergraduate courses often do have fewer than 10 students.
“Sometimes it’s just not feasible to do a class with more students than that, and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s a university; you’re meant to be acquiring specialized information and qualifications that you can use to progress towards graduate and then potentially doctoral work.”
With the policy changes set to impact everything from which courses are offered to the consolidation of various departments, Chilcott argued the school’s character is changing: “It makes it feel like a degree mill rather than a university… It will make people who get degrees at Queen’s less competitive, because all of a sudden you go to a different university where they are able to offer this sort of specialized information, and they won’t want to take someone with a [master’s degree] from Queen’s, who has not had access to the requisite training.”
The policy changes will impact not only the more than 8,500 undergraduate students enrolled in Arts and Science at Queen’s, but students in graduate programs, as well. Chilcott said this has caused him to reconsider his initial plan to continue his studies at Queen’s in a master’s program.
“I don’t know if my graduate program will even exist or, if it does exist, whether it will be in the same form… I was considering Queen’s because I’m just finishing up my degree; I’m already a TA [teaching assistant]. I was considering a [master of arts] here, but I just don’t know,” he expressed.
Aside from the changes to course offerings, the Dean’s memo also includes policy changes to streamline curriculum development throughout the Faculty of Arts and Science.
“Departments, in consultation with the Faculty Office, shall revisit their curriculum to identify opportunities for curriculum optimization,” Dean Crow wrote. “This could potentially include condensing options, streamlining specializations, limiting electives, etc.”
Chilcott voiced concerns that policies related to curriculum development may impact how other universities and institutions perceive an Arts and Science degree from Queen’s.
“The movement of curriculum decisions out of the departments toward the Faculty Office means it will be administrators and bureaucrats deciding for departments what is necessary,” he said. “If it’s about the cost and not about the qualifications of the degree, that becomes something that’s well known — and why would anyone choose a degree at Queen’s if their qualifications might not allow them to continue work or research at another university?”
While university officials have spoken openly about the school’s budget concerns, Chilcott said the specific policy changes included in Dean Crow’s memo have not been properly articulated to students. Chilcott described the university’s lack of communication as “deceitful,” especially as prospective students begin to accept offers to Queen’s for the next school year without a proper understanding of what the various programs might look like come September.
“A lot of these cuts are coming into place next year… There are students, probably this week, who’ve accepted undergraduate offers from Queen’s, not knowing that their classes are going to be larger. They’re going to have fewer TAs, [and] many of their courses and specializations might not be able to be offered in the future,” he said.
“If people are making their decisions based on the currently available information… the fact that Queen’s has not updated that information, despite by all accounts being set on these changes, it just seems inappropriate. I think there are going to be a lot of people who get shortchanged by the university.”
While Chilcott is just one of thousands of students affected by the potential policy changes, he said his feelings represent the concerns of many of his peers, noting, “Everyone is just upset. I think everyone is also very concerned about the quality of their education and how competitive they’ll be able to be.”
As for the decision to decision to cut millions of dollars from the Faculty’s budget, Chilcott alleged the university should look for other ways to trim its deficit.
“Responding to [one year of deficit] by significantly cutting the teaching capacity of the university, which will be permanent, feels inappropriate; it feels shortsighted; it feels self-serving,” he claimed.
The student pointed to the salaries of university administrators as one way the school could reduce spending without cutting courses.
“One of the first things I look at is administrative costs. Queen’s is one of the bulkiest administrations of Ontario universities,” Chilcott claimed. “The upper echelons of staff and the administrators make, quite frankly, shocking amounts of money. The number of people who make $300,000, $400,000, $500,000…”
As previously reported, there were 1,314 Queen’s University employees who made more than $170,000 annually in 2022, according to the Ontario Public Salary Disclosure data published earlier this year (often referred to as “the sunshine list.” Of those, two made more than $500,000/year.
Given the lack of communication from administrators, coupled with upcoming changes to the overall structure of the various programs, Chilcott said many faculty members are afraid to speak out against the policy changes “because, all of a sudden, the people that are designing or pushing through the cuts that you’re protesting are the people who get to decide whether your program can run.”
He added, “Departments don’t want to speak up for fear of reprisal, which… kind of communicates the relationship between the Faculty and administration.”
In response to Kingstonist’s request for comment, Queen’s University issued the following statement: “Queen’s University publicly announced on May 18, 2023, that in response to cumulative financial pressures, Queen’s will run a $62.8 million operating budget deficit in its 2023-24 fiscal year. The university provided a further public update on July 6, noting there would be reductions in budget allocations to all faculties and shared services portfolios.
“Queen’s operating budget has been impacted by several factors, including the 2019 cut and subsequent freeze of tuition for Ontario students by the provincial government, the reduction in international enrolment post-pandemic, and inflationary pressures. The university is implementing a series of prudent and financially responsible cost-saving measures so we can continue to invest in our strategic priorities while achieving a balanced structural budget by [2025-26].
“Each department and faculty at the university is being asked to find ways to reduce the overall operating deficit. The Faculty of Arts and Science has the largest deficit among the university’s faculties; this is partly due to its size but is also due to the fact that it has been disproportionately impacted by the tuition freeze and fall in international student recruitment.
“Any changes to the Faculty of Arts and Science’s curriculum include consultation with students through representation on curriculum committees and Faculty Board. Implementing minimum enrolment requirements for undergraduate course sections across the university in the 2024-25 academic year allows units to make necessary adjustments to teaching assignments and timetabling. There may be exceptions to minimum enrolment requirements where there is a pedagogical reason to run a low enrolment course,” the statement read.
In response to a followup from Kingstonist, which included a request for comment as to when decisions will be made regarding which courses will be cut for the 2024-25 school year, communications staff with the university simply pointed to the initial statement and did not offer any additional clarification.