“Heartbreaking but illuminating” is how one participant described the online “teach-in” held by Queen’s Coalition Against Austerity (QCAA) to shed light on Queen’s University’s dire financial situation.
Over the lunch hour on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, with over 300 people watching online and watch parties happening across campus, the coalition of staff, faculty, and students at Queen’s University explained why they oppose recent budget cuts mandated by the Board of Trustees and the Provost. Many students and staff spoke of fear for their academic positions and careers in coming forward with their concerns about the cuts. There was a palpable sense of relief that such a large group across campus, from all sectors of university life, supported the opposition to the cuts.
The teach-in came in response to to a leaked memo made public by a group of concerned students, which outlined a list of sweeping policy changes, some of which will be implemented for the 2024-25 school year — changes being suggested to combat the university’s $62.8 million deficit.
QCAA speakers reported on the issues they say will rise from the impending planned cuts and answered questions about what the changes mean for the academic mission of Queen’s and employment at the university.
Friday’s event was planned before Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Dr. Matthew Evans, the University’s chief academic, budget, and operating officer, sent an email to the university community on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 30,
Evans stated that the purpose of the email was to “further update [faculty, staff, and students] regarding the university’s budget,” and he addressed the “considerable attention” that “has been focused on the state of the university’s finances” in recent weeks.
Referring to what he called “significant financial challenges,” the Provost wrote that “costs have exceeded revenue to an unsustainable level with an operating budget deficit for the current fiscal year 2023-24 initially projected to be over $62 million. This is ten percent of our total operating budget of slightly more than $600 million.”
Evans stated that the operating deficit’s cause is falling revenue related directly to the provincial government’s decision in 2019 to cut and subsequently freeze tuition for Ontario’s students; this move, he said, has “cost Queen’s almost $180 million to date in lost revenue.” He also stated that Queen’s has been “hit harder than many other universities in Ontario” for various reasons.
QCAA speakers — including representatives from Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) local 901, United Steelworkers (USW) local 2010, Queen’s University Faculty Association’s Adjunct Advocacy Committee, and students — addressed these claims and pointed to a new report entitled “Shock Doctrine at Queen’s University: Budget cuts and austerity in context,” which challenges the speed and scale of the cuts being implemented.
As explained on the QCAA website. the coalition’s goal for the teach-in was “to educate about the causes and implications of austerity at Queen’s and in the Ontario post-secondary sector more generally, and to suggest meaningful actions and alternatives for dealing with ongoing underfunding… Our work is grounded in the belief that public education should be truly and fully publicly funded, requiring the abolition of tuition fees, full job security for everyone employed in the post-secondary sector, adequate compensation for all labour, and a basic income for everyone.”
The group points out that “while all Ontario universities receive inadequate funding from the provincial government, Queen’s employees and students are being asked to shoulder the burden of what has been presented as a particularly drastic financial situation.”
According to a QCAA petition calling for the suspension of the cuts and greater transparency about the actual financial situation of the university and any proposed future cuts, “These cuts will compromise the academic mission of Queen’s. They will lead to job losses that will hurt those instructors and staff members who are already most precarious, and will diminish the quality of education students receive.”
One of the speakers, president Kelly Orser of USW local 2010, the union representing unionized support staff, said the USW believes “all unions… should be planning to strike in 24/25 to send a message to the employer. We also think non-unionized staff and lower tier management and managers need to stand with unionized colleagues on this… Queen’s has a wage parity policy; non-unionized staff receive the same cost of living adjustments [that unionized staff] do on campus… So it’s really beneficial for everyone on campus to seriously consider supporting these potential strikes and any other job action that may… be happening in the future. “
The “Shock Doctrine” document states, “Queen’s University is facing budgetary pressures based on funding decisions made at the Provincial level among other factors. However, the scale, speed, and unnuanced manner in which these pressures are being handled by university administration need further justification as it is placing the costs of austerity onto students, staff, and faculty.”
It highlights what it calls “key contextual points for the budget crisis [at] Queen’s,” including:
- The resources that may be available for Queen’s University to take a more balanced approach to addressing its budgetary pressures.
- How the operating deficit from 2022-23 was enlarged by a transfer into the capital budget rather than only ongoing costs.
- The projected $62.8 million operating budget deficit used to justify cuts must be seen within a consistent pattern of overestimating deficits (by an average of $44 million over the past six years).
- Describing Queen’s approach to budgeting for, and utilizing, investment income from its $2 billion in investment funds and alternative approaches which would lessen pressure on the operating budget. Queen’s is undertaking drastic cuts rapidly in a manner that an independent bond rating agency has stated is unnecessary due to the university’s high reserves and low debt ratio.
This is an ongoing story; Kingstonist will provide updates as they become available.