Faced with financial challenges, U of A considers transformative restructuring

Facing significant financial challenges, Alberta’s oldest and largest post-secondary institute is considering one of the most transformative changes to its academic structure in its 112-year history.

The University of Alberta released a report last week detailing three proposals that deal with restructuring faculties and administration. The academic restructuring is one half of a plan called U of A for Tomorrow, which will also look at transforming the university’s administrative structure. 

The university must reduce overall expenses by more than $120 million over the next three years due to the reduction in operating grants from the provincial government, the report said.

Given that, the “status quo is not an option,” the report said, and due to the current fiscal situation job losses are “inevitable.”

However, University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan said the restructuring offers the opportunity for the institution to become a leader in post-secondary education in Canada.

“I think there’s a shared sense of urgency that we need to be bold, we need to be innovative,” he said. “We need to be creative. The financial challenge facing the university is a large one, but also just the scale of the opportunity for us to lead the sector in Canada and think not only about what the University of Alberta of tomorrow will look like, but really what the university of tomorrow looks like.”

Three scenarios

Among the proposals being considered by the Academic Restructuring Working Group is the major consolidation of faculties into three large divisions aimed at reducing ballooning administrative costs.

The three new divisions would fall under the banners of Health and Medical Science, Natural and Applied Science and Social Science and Humanities.

The U of A’s operating budget for the 2020-21 year is $1.1 billion. 

According to the report, the plan would save the university millions — $31.8 million in operating costs initially and another $11.2 million in leadership costs. 

Under the proposal to combine faculties, Campus Saint-Jean, Augustana and Native Studies would remain outside the new structure as stand-alone faculties.

Flanagan said it was important to keep those programs separate from the restructuring.

“We value those faculty and we value the focus that they bring and the communities that they serve,” he said.

The report includes two other potential scenarios: One that combines Health Sciences faculties, with exception of medicine and dentistry, but keeps other faculties intact; and a hybrid configuration that combines some faculties and adds a separate shared division for several smaller faculties. 

University president Bill Flanagan says the academic restructuring provides the opportunity to create the university of tomorrow. (Peter Evans/CBC News)

Though all three scenarios are under consideration, the academic working group’s evaluation favours the option of combining most faculties into three large divisions.

“This option is the most disruptive to the current organization and how it operates, but offers the greatest potential savings and greatest academic opportunities,” the report said.

Feedback is still needed before any option is chosen, and the report said “none of these scenarios is considered a finished product.”

Why restructure

Though the most obvious goal of restructuring is financial, the report noted that other potential benefits to the university would include improved interdisciplinary collaboration. 

“We often joke about how these faculties operate in silos within their discipline,” said Flanagan. “It’s hard to break down these silos and build the interdisciplinary work in teaching and research. And we know that some of the very best research in the world … is just research that spans a variety of different disciplines. That’s often where the greatest insights can be found.”

Restructuring also allows the university to evaluate its course offerings; among the issues highlighted in the report is the issue of course and program duplication. 

“At the course level, for example, versions of basic anatomy are taught in six different units, and introductory or second-level statistics are taught in six units,” the report said.

Job implications

The report noted that at this point in the process, academic restructuring does not include reducing budgets or reducing the number of faculty. But the report does reference a reduction in leadership roles. Flanagan said having 18 faculties means having 18 deans, as well as associate deans and other administrative roles. 

“We know that with 18 faculties, that drives a lot of cost,” he said. 

Depending on the scenario chosen, the university could save between $10.6 and $43 million. The report noted that “the university’s current financial situation makes job losses inevitable” but the work on academic and administrative restructuring “is intended to ensure that our employees are engaged in meaningful, effective, and efficient work, and that maximal resources are dedicated toward our core missions of teaching and research.”

Union response

Though the academic restructuring report points to millions in potential savings, there is little information about where those estimates come from. 

Ricardo Acuña, president of the Association of Academic Staff at the U of A (AASUA), said without a detailed breakdown that includes potential job losses and transition costs, it’s difficult to consider the implications of any scenario.

“We’re being called on to make what might be some of the most important decisions in the university’s history and we’re lacking just fulsome information that we can wrap our hands around to properly discuss and debate about the alternatives,” he said. 

Acuña said he thinks the restructuring group wants a direction on a preferred scenario before considering the full financial impact.

“In other words, if you help identify a scenario, then we’ll take that scenario away and cost it out,” he said. “But by that time, it’s almost like it’s too late. It’s like putting the cart before the horse and it’s not going to get us where we need to be.”

Acuña said the AASUA members he has heard from want to see both the financial and academic impacts of each scenario before endorsing any plan. But he acknowledges the university is facing a significant financial challenge and that some changes need to be made. 

“We’re all in this together to try and keep the university alive however we can, and we’re prepared to work with admin to make that happen,” he said. “But we’re not for a moment going to pretend that it’s happy times and we’re going to be better and stronger for it.”

What’s next: 

At the moment, the academic restructuring plan is in consultation phase. The university will hold a public town hall on Wednesday and the proposals will be discussed at public and private meetings over the next few weeks. 

An updated proposal will be presented to the university community in November for another phase of consultation, and a final proposal will be voted on in December. 

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