By Rhia Perkins
Classrooms packed to the gills, lecture sections filled before you even get a chance to register, overworked professors staring at endless seas of faces and wondering if a better teaching experience is to be found elsewhere–all are signs of an underfunded education system.
While this trend is clear throughout the University of Calgary, nowhere is this lack of funding more obvious than in the Arts and Humanities.
Much of the problem stems from several years of provincial government cutbacks–a total decrease of 21 per cent since 1995.
"Government in a direct sense has over the last few years become a smaller portion of our total budget," said Dean of Social Sciences Dr. Stephen Randall. "I don’t see any indication on the
horizon that is going to significantly change."
Additionally, funding that has recently been allocated to post-secondary institutions has tended to be targeted, one-time funding.
"The government has been giving some money back but the money is tied to specific programs. The university can’t just deploy it in any way it chooses," explained Helen Kominek, Faculty Administrative Officer of the Faculty of Communication and Culture. "Even though a lot of the money has been coming back since the 21 per cent cuts several years ago, they’ve been giving it back to us in the form of ACCESS grants, which is targeted, in the last round anyway, to Engineering and IT."
The Arts and Humanities also suffer due to the difficulties in obtaining corporate funding, which has been key in the relative success of faculties like Management and Medicine.
"When it comes to the Humanities and the Arts in general the ability to leverage funds is limited," said Dean of Humanities Dr. Pierre-Yves Mocquais. "You have other faculties, which have more of a possibility, traditionally, to raise money. Some others have less of a tradition of being able to do that."
Ideological issues are also an important factor in securing corporate funding for teaching and
research, but this has not stopped faculties from securing this kind of outside funding.
"We have been very careful at any stage where we have accepted funding and sought funding from the private sector to maintain the integrity of academic freedom and also to apply the tri-council guidelines for ethics in academic research," explained Randall. "[But] faculty would be doing the same thing regardless of where the funding was coming from."
Still, the percentage of corporate funding in Arts and Humanities is negligible.
"None of our operating is currently funded by corporate sources," said Kominek.
Dr. Kathleen Scherf, Dean of Communication and Culture, concurred. "It’s a harder sell," she said of corporate funding. "There are some real ethical concerns about that."
The bias of corporate sponsors toward more scientific disciplines is evident throughout Canada, and combined with the reluctance of government to invest in these more basic fields of education, the negative results are plainly seen by both staff and students.
"It’s affecting students because we’re restricted in the number of sections we can offer," said Scherf. "It affects staff in that as student enrollment and activity increases, so does staff, and it’s certainly affecting faculty in that they’re stretched pretty thin right now. Our budget is not increasing in proportion to the increase in student registrations."
"We have a serious problem of resource allocation more generally with respect to space availability, capital budget funding for equipment, and so on down the line, things which go way beyond space issues," he said.
Money for the provision of computer equipment, special supplies and laboratory space is severely limited by budget shortages.
The faculty situation is also particularly difficult, with many professors accepting better-paid positions elsewhere. Faculties are often forced to rely heavily on carry-over funding–which remains when a professor goes on sick leave, leaves to teach at another university, et cetera–to fill the positions necessary to offer an acceptable level of service to students.
"A university like Calgary has by and large a salary scale, which does not place it even nearly towards the top of Canadian universities–more towards the middle of the pack," explained Mocquais. "It means that it’s easy for other universities to offer conditions, to more easily recruit people. It’s happening in the Humanities as I’m sure it’s happening in other places. The difference is that sometimes, other faculties have–because of private endowments or money coming from the corporate sector–a bit more money to play with."
These staff are perhaps most affected by the shortfalls.
"We’re asking people in the trenches, professors who are out there dealing with students, to bear the burden of this underfunding," said Scherf.
There is also the issue of the lack of research funding available for studies in Arts and Humanities disciplines.
"The number of Canada Research Chairs that will be allocated in Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council related disciplines will be significantly lower on this campus," said Randall. "But [this is] true across the country; it’s not unique to Calgary."
"The granting councils in the Social Sciences and the Humanities only fund at a level of about 15 per cent of all requests as compared to 65 or 70 per cent when it comes to NSERC, for example."
All the Deans consulted, however, feel that the general impression that people have of the funding situation is exaggerated and express hope for the future.
"I’m personally rather optimistic," said Mocquais. "I think that a society needs balance and when it tends to go too much in one direction it tends to find its balance on its own. I think that balance will be achieved–some people think this is totally naïve–but I really feel that there is a greater level of consciousness on the part of society as a whole of the importance of the Humanities."
It is clear, however, that education of society is an important facet of this change.
"One thing that we can do is to work through the school system, to emphasize the Arts and Humanities at a lower level," explains Scherf. "We all want our children to read better, to think better, to think creatively, imaginatively, analytically, critically. These are all attributes that we continue to develop here."
All of the Deans insisted that the sciences are not favoured over the Arts and Humanities on the part of the university.
"This university is very conscious of the need to keep the university as a comprehensive university–whether it’s Humanities or Engineering, whether it’s Medicine or Law, Social Work or Social Sciences and that all these facets are very important," insisted Mocquais. "The university is trying its best to maintain this, though it’s not always able to do it as well as it could."
"I think the university is doing the best it can by us," she said. "I really can’t lay this at the university’s doorstep. It’s external funding to a large extent that is driving other faculty budgets. And we don’t begrudge them that; they should take that cash and run."