Profs’ Priorities

Created 11 December 2011 00:12

Imagine that the provincial government wanted to make a new investment in BC’s post-secondary educational system — an additional $15 million — a pretty modest amount in the government’s scheme of things. Then give the professors of BC’s research-intensive universities — UBC, SFU, UVic, UNBC, and Royal Roads — ten choices as to what to do with the money.

In August and September, the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC did just that, asking its members to respond to this made-up scenario.

We intentionally excluded increased salaries even though these have fallen well behind inflation over the last twenty years.

What resulted? First of all, the survey demonstrated the professors’ great commitment to students. Of the ten choices we offered, faculty members indicated that supporting excellent graduate students was their top priority, with more than one quarter making it their first choice. When we tallied the top three choices, more than half had included such support for this next generation of scholars.

When we combined the first choices for other ways to support students financially — increased support of aboriginal students (6%), a tuition freeze (12%), increased bursaries (11%), and reduced interest on student loans (6%) — we found that this overall indicator of student support ranked even higher than the support for grad students, with more than one-third of the first choices.

Nearly 20% of faculty voted to use the funds for recruitment and retention, a top-three choice of more than four in ten of the respondents. Our sense is that this number indicates the frustration of faculty members with the declining buying power of university faculty salaries, especially in BC’s red-hot real estate market. Even though recruitment and retention money targets only a limited segment of the faculty, it was the only choice we offered that suggested higher salaries.

If we add together the various indicators of support for students, both graduate and undergraduate students, we find that more than 60% of the faculty members made students their first choice, outnumbering recruitment and retention money for profs themselves by more than three to one.

It’s also interesting to note those options that faculty chose least-often, especially since governments, both federal and provincial, have opted for versions of these proposals in the recent past. Targeted funding to support research in key economic areas was popular with only 4% of respondents, endowed research chairs in areas identified by the universities with only 2%, and an increased number of student spaces — giving the money to the universities rather than to students — with 8%. A favourite with university administrators — funding for teaching awards — was the top choice of only 6%.

The interest among profs for greater student, and especially graduate student, support is no accident. There are no BC fellowships for top graduate students, while both Alberta and Ontario have fellowships of $10-15,000 for students at the Master’s and Doctoral levels in non-professional programs. This difference gives universities in those provinces a great advantage over BC universities in recruiting the best graduate students. Having excellent graduate students is crucial to the success of all aspects of the university. Because graduate students are also closely involved in the research and teaching programs of university professors, attracting the best of them positively affects both research and undergraduate teaching.

Many graduate students end up settling where they do their studies, so new fellowships will also attract more highly-educated people to the province permanently, not just for their graduate studies. These highly-educated individuals bring a wide range of benefits — intellectual, cultural, and economic — to the province. Increasing support for post-secondary educational institutions brings benefits to all.