U of A offers voluntary buyout packages to professors to meet funding shortfall

Aug 12, 2013 by

Source: Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON: On short notice, the University of Alberta is quickly taking steps to reduce the number of professors through voluntary buyouts, with some professors expected to leave as early as December.

The university, which submitted its proposed budget to the province last week, received “informal messages” that it needs to move more quickly to balance the books, acting provost Martin Ferguson-Pell said in an interview.

That meant crunching a three-year plan to balance the budget into two years and cutting $56 million in the next two years, said Ferguson-Pell.

While he could not say how many of the 4,500 academic staff he expects will leave, Ferguson-Pell said about 75 per cent of the $56 million to be cut is devoted to salaries. “That gives an idea of what we are removing in terms of compensation.”

“This is not something we do lightly, we have a lot invested in our academic staff. But there is not much choice,” he added.

“We don’t have any sense of how many people will be interested, so we put it out for discussion.”

Most would leave in June 2014, but some could leave as early as this December, he added. It will require reviewing course offerings and classes for the fall of 2014.

Under the offer, professors have a month to consider the offer and will know by the end of September if they are accepted for the buyout, a maximum of one year’s salary. Each case will be decided by the deans in consultation with administration, he added.

“Students will have concerns about class sizes and program availability but we can’t say anything about that until the numbers come forward,” said Ferguson-Pell.

The U of A is also about to review the high school averages needed to gain acceptance in too high demand faculties.

It’s possible those averages will be increased, especially in engineering and science, to keep within enrolment targets, said Ferguson-Pell.

Kevin Kane, president of the academic staff association, said the association is “receptive” to the idea of voluntary buyouts as another tool to deal with the 7.2 per cent reduction in provincial funding announced this fall to all universities and colleges.

But there’s a lot of concern that high profile, mid-career people and promising younger professors will take the package which is offered to everyone, not just to those near retirement, he added.

“We could lose some very important people,” said Kane, who also worries that research teams could be broken up.

The more academic staff who take the buyout, “it may ease the budget crisis, but you could see our programs negatively affected,” he warned.

The staff association is also disappointed the university administration acted “unilaterally” in announcing the buyouts. Under the collective agreement, this step should have been put to a vote among the academic staff, he added.

“We’re sympathetic, but we think they should follow proper process.”

The U of A’s hand was forced by the province which has “unrealistic expectations” about how fast the university can move to cope with such major budget cuts, Kane added.

Political science professor Ian Urquhart said the university has switched direction again in its desperate effort to trim budgets. Previously it was looking for program cuts to save money and now it is cutting academic staff.

“It’s hard to have confidence when university leadership lurches from one half-baked approach to another,” said Urquhart, adding that people are frustrated.

Also, the administration should provide taxpayers and faculty with many more budget details so it is clear to the public and professors which faculties are being cut more, he said. So far, both are kept in the dark, he said.

Urquhart put in a request under the Freedom of Information Act to get those details of faculty cuts. In response, he recently received 87 pages with all the specific budget numbers brushed out.

“We need more transparency,” he said. “I expect the government to keep us in the dark but I expect more form the U of A leadership. The university is no better than the province in providing information,” he said.

Thomas Lukaszuk, minister of Advanced Education, said Tuesday he received the U of A’s proposed budget last week but has not yet read it. He expects to respond in a couple of weeks.

Lukaszuk also said he did not ask the U of A to accelerate its cuts from the proposed three-year plan they announced earlier this spring.

But he noted that the $60 million deficit the university planned to carry over was larger than the $47 million the university lost when the operating grants were cut.

The U of A has already cut $28 million from its 2013-14 budget.

In addition to the $47 million cut in provincial funding, the U of A had a structural deficit of $12 million, partly due to falling investment revenues.

Last week, the staff association declined to reopen the two-year collective agreement to consider salary rollbacks. The agreement provides for a 1.65 per cent increase this year and next.

MacEwan University has no plans to offer buyouts to its academic staff, spokesman David Beharry confirmed.

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