Mixed reviews for budget

BRONWYN CHESTER | While the provincial budget, announced two weeks ago, made a few moves in the right direction, it failed to address the most important fiscal issue facing all Quebec universities: the underfunding of their operating budgets.

Principal Bernard Shapiro hailed the government's allocation of $170 million to repay universities for the costs incurred for their early retirement schemes.

"The government is saying that it was unfair that the early retirement schemes of all educational establishments were funded by the government except in the case of universities," says Shapiro.

The principal notes that it was the universities who pointed out this discrepancy to the government and says he is "satisfied" that the $23.8 million McGill will receive "more than covers" what the University had paid for early retirements.

In terms of the University's deficit, which will be approximately $55 million by the fiscal year's end, the new money will, in effect, save McGill the annual interest charges, approximately .75 million dollars, it pays on the deficit, says Shapiro.

However, where the pressing matters of improving current salaries and opening new positions are concerned, the budget is useful "only in a very, very minimal way," says Shapiro, "because it doesn't address the problem of ongoing operating budget needs."

The "minimal way" to which the principal refers is through the $24-million fund to support the training of information technology (IT) professionals in the province's universities and CEGEPs.

Calling the fund "an interesting idea" and a move "in the right direction," Shapiro has reservations about the difference such money could make to McGill. The fund is aimed, in part, at encouraging students to finish in such programs as electrical and computer engineering and computer science. But "people do complete here," says Shapiro. "What we need is money for labs and professors. There is not enough focus on the needs of the individual institutions."

Professor David Lowther, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, doesn't see how the money, of which $10 million will be allocated this year and $14 million next, will allow him to turn out many more than the approximately 140 students already graduating from his department.

Lowther notes that the IT fund comes in response to a recent report by Montreal TechnoVision which indicated that the 1998 need in Quebec industries for IT graduates was three-and-a-half times the number of IT-skilled people who actually graduated from the province's universities and CEGEPs.

Lowther says "the biggest problem is that all the universities put together (there are at least seven faculties of engineering in the province) can't generate half of that requirement even if they all grew by 30% annually for five years.

"Montreal TechnoVision found it would take $50 million per year for the next three years to address the problem, so the government's doing about a quarter of that."

McGill has lost half of its electrical and computer engineering faculty over the past six years and there have been five positions open for the past year, a situation that is not unique to this University.

Lowther, joking that his department is a bit like the Expos -- "except we're not looking for a new building" -- says McGill can't compete with the other North American universities looking to fill the total of 400-plus university positions open in the field. The University of Toronto, for instance, has 20 vacancies in their electrical and computer engineering department and their starting salary is $75,000 as compared to McGill's $60,000. Both the provinces of Ontario and Alberta have decided to double student enrolment in electrical and computer engineering, making professors with the ability to teach in those areas even more valuable.

Lowther questions the usefulness of the IT money in terms of being able to attract and keep new professors. "If it's a one-shot operation, who is going to pay the salaries later on?" he asks. Money to replace lab equipment and increase the size of labs would be nice but "then we'd need more professors to run the labs."

Noting that "we've been running downhill for such a long time, it's hard to know where to go," Lowther, like Shapiro, concludes that what's important now in government funding is that it goes to support salaries and that it be continuous.

Speaking from the newly created Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, Minister Jean Rochon announced last week the creation of Valorisation-Recherche, a non-profit corporation, designed to steer research into the creation of innovative companies. Of the $100 million initial funding, $50 million will go toward financing multidisciplinary university research in tandem with researchers in the private sector. The other $50 million will go toward commercializing university research.

In addition, the Fonds Innovation Québec, with a budget of $75.2 million over two years, is designed to encourage research partnerships between universities, the private sector and the public sector.

This was good news to Alex Navarre, director of the Office of Technology Transfer. "I think it's a very positive step regarding the funding of activities relating to commercialization. Over the years, we and all Quebec universities have been underfunded and this will bring the necessary oxygen," he says, noting that the universities of British Columbia and Alberta have at least 25 people in their equivalents to the OTT, whereas McGill has seven.

Furthermore, Navarre is impressed by Rochon's ability to "listen very quickly and respond to an inherent problem. The universities represent 30 per cent of all research and development in the province. The fact is we're one of his biggest constituents."

Excited by the recognition of the need for such a ministry -- one that is distinct from the Ministry of Education whose mandate is not in the commercial realm -- the director believes "that taking advantage of what's being developed in universities is a natural extension of university creativity."

Shapiro, for his part, lauds the fact that these two new programs will fund research not only aimed at developing innovative technologies but also at the understanding of the social and cultural aspects of innovation.

He also notes that such monies may aid in the hiring of new professors, thereby addressing the lack of new blood in new universities. However, he cautions that almost all the new funding from the government was "one-time" and fails, once again, to address the fundamental problem of universities in Quebec: the ongoing underfunding of base budgets.

That's one subject on which the principal and many of the province's students agree. A series of occupations and demonstrations by the Mouvement pour le Droit à l'Éducation (MDE) and Quebec members of the Canadian Federation of Students are being planned to protest the government's track record on university funding. The student groups are also calling on Quebec City to spend more on student aid.