The Open Door: Setting the record straight
The following letter is an unabridged (and slightly edited for reprinting here) version of a letter sent by Provost Carl Amrhein to the editor of the Edmonton Journal.
A recent article in the Edmonton Journal focused on the University of Alberta’s administration costs. The story presented an incomplete and misleading picture of our university, an extremely complex $1.5-billion enterprise.
There are five points that clarify or correct points made by the article:
1. The province’s auditor general audits the university annually and, further, the province requires a report on administrative expenditures as a proportion of specified operating expenditures for which the top level of excellence is considered five per cent or less. The U of A sits at 4.7 per cent, nearly 10 percentage points below the Journal’s reported figure.
2. One simply cannot look at percentages of expenditures without looking at related revenues. The analysis upon which the story is based looks at only one part of the university’s budget and follows the false assumption that university activities and expenditures can be divided into separate learning and research categories with no crossover effects. There are expenses in the U of A’s operating budget that have a massive impact on teaching through funding for professors, students and equipment. In fact, the sponsored research and related capital funding in the U of A budget produces direct benefit to the learning experience of $270 million ($55 million to students for scholarships and research jobs, $61 million for extra professors, $61 million for cutting-edge equipment, $86 million in research facilities, $14 million for costs related to research). The Journal did a marvelous story on our undergraduates engaged in nanotechnology research recently. That’s a perfect example of students deriving a direct benefit from “central” expenditures.
3. Relying on data from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers, which looks solely at expenses, fails to take into account the very different ways that post-secondary institutions are structured and account for their expenses. For example, there is a direct correlation between external research funding (revenue) and the university’s Research Services Office, which flow funds relating to the teaching and research enterprise but appear solely as an operating expense in the CAUBO data. Similarly, our international student engagement unit appears solely as an operating expense but directs millions of dollars directly into the faculties. Advancement (fundraising) activities appear solely as an expense yet generate many millions in gifts and partnerships—this year more than $88 million in a difficult economy.
4. Other post-secondary institutions, including within Campus Alberta, benefit from and rely on
U of A expenditures, particularly with respect to libraries. Many other schools are buying fewer academic journal subscriptions and books because they can access U of A’s materials through various library partnerships.
5. Finally, as noted in the story, there has been a significant increase in mandates, laws and expectations upon post-secondary institutions that drive growth in administration costs. A few examples include the areas of health and safety, freedom of information, litigation, biohazard safety, environmental sustainability, information technology security and employment standards.