When Capilano University ran into a deficit and was forced to cut programs this year, it wasn't just a story about budgets and numbers. It touched off a conversation about whether the school had lost its way.
While the budget shortfall and program cuts were painful, lost in the conversation was the change happening both at CapU and around the world.
More program cuts are likely on the horizon as the administration plans its 2014 budget, but that doesn't mean the university is operating without a plan, said CapU president Kris Bulcroft in a recent interview with the North Shore News.
After facing a $1.3-million budget shortfall in 2013, the school cut several programs, among them: studio arts, computer science and commerce as well as arts and science transfer courses. The cuts prompted student protests on campus and strong condemnation from the Capilano Faculty Association.
While a provincial election campaign complicated the process for planning in 2013, the university is working now to preserve its valued courses and chart a deliberate path for 2014.
"We're out there right now trying to get people to realize we're probably going to have a budget shortfall. There's no excess revenues or big gifts falling from the sky that will change that picture," Bulcroft said.
The province has signalled it will be offering up even less in postsecondary education grants in 2014, though Bulcroft said she continually lobbies the government for better funding, including at a recent sit-down with Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk.
"We had an opportunity to sit and talk a little bit about 'Why is Cap the lowest-funded university in the system?'" she asked. "Government too has their own problems. Let's face it. The economy is not exactly roaring, and so I understand the funding of post-secondary isn't to the extent everybody would like it to be funded. Cap's not the only one."
Expenses are going up as staff and faculty are both due for a two-per cent salary increase negotiated by the province.
Tuition, meanwhile, is regulated by the province and is never allowed to go up by more than two per cent in a year.
While the exact figures will depend on next year's admissions and government grants, which won't be known until the new year, the administration is projecting a shortfall of "about the same magnitude of last year," Bulcroft said.
Despite accusations earlier in the year that administrative costs were eating up what should be classroom budgets, Bulcroft said everyone from the top down has had to make efficiencies. Administrative salaries have been frozen since 2010 and cuts have been made to marketing and communications budgets, energy consumption, and the school let two vicepresidents go to make a leaner organizational structure.
Bulcroft and the board faced pleas from the faculty association and students to spread smaller spending cuts over every department instead of cutting out entire programs. But that approach only works when there's still some fat left in the system - and there is none remaining at Cap, said Bulcroft.
"After a while, what you see happening in institutions that choose that path forward is all students suffer. Students can't get access to the courses they need. The quality of the services that you can provide begins to dwindle for everybody. In my opinion, the overall quality of an institution suffers when you make yearafter-year, across-the-board cuts. So, we've had to be more strategic in the kinds of cuts we've made," she said.
The board extended its consultation period in 2013 but no viable or legal alternatives emerged that would spare the programs from a legally mandated balanced budget. "We still had people who were upset because the result of that consultation was that there were still program cuts in the mix," said Bulcroft.
While the campus protests and nasty letters that came in response were disappointing personally, Bulcroft said she was more worried about damage being done to the university's reputation.
The strategy the board of governors used to select which programs to cut last year is the same that will be used this year - aiming to impact as few students as possible.
Cap has a policy to "teach out" closed programs, so students who had started their program could finish it. That meant two-year diploma and certificate programs and non-accreditation classes were the first to be considered.
"We tried to look at things that did the least amount of harm to current students," she said. "We looked at programs that were low-enrolment, very high cost, that were not filling quickly.. .. We looked at things like student demand. We also thought about how Cap fits in the system of post-secondary. This is a system."
Consultation with the faculty, students and wider community is now underway and Bulcroft hopes it will be smoother this time. "I think we have a better sense of the lay of the land. We're going to come up with some scenarios about how to move forward, vet them with the campus community, make sure people are apprised of some possible scenarios, certainly get feedback in terms of anybody having a better idea, and we will hopefully be out there by the new year with some of these potential cuts and/or other solutions."
Absent from the criticisms Cap has faced in the last year is an acknowledgement of the huge flux that is happening both in demographics and the way post-secondary learning is done, Bulcroft said.
"Somebody said to me one time, 'Look at all the change you've brought to Cap.' I said 'I haven't brought any change to Cap. Change is happening. Our job is to manage change in a way that does the right thing for our learners,'" she said.
With fewer and fewer students to draw from North Shore high schools, the university must make itself appealing to students from beyond Burrard Inlet, just as other schools seek out students from the North Shore.
"We've got to be more competitive if we want to remain viable as an institution that enrolls students because they're not just going to come from the North Shore," she said.
Unlike most universities, which are primarily focused on research, Cap is a teaching university, making it better positioned to greet changes happening in post-secondary education, Bulcroft said. The trend around North America and the world is shifting as the schools face evolving demands from students.
"The old model of a professor just blathering on and lecturing at people, it does not resonate with this generation," she said. "The focus is on the undergraduates, getting people prepared for the world through the application of that knowledge. It's a model that's not been here. I think we're seeing a differentiated system emerge in Canada and it's hard for Cap to be one of the first ones out."
Much of the consternation over 2013 has been rooted in those old assumptions about what teaching and learning ought to be, according to Bulcroft.
"There's an overemphasis on which fields should be taught. 'We must have this, we must have this. A good university must have this.' "I think the new paradigm shift is less about the narrow disciplinary focus and more about inter-disciplinarity and transferable skills. That message hasn't sunk into the public because we cannot be all things for all people."
The loss of some programs, while regrettable, shouldn't be confused with a lack of vision, Bulcroft said, "Actually, I think Cap has one of the best visions imaginable and that is to really serve the learners in a way that puts them in a community, turns them into agents of change," she said. "I want Cap to be a top-tier teaching university. That is my vision."