The provincial government gave Dalhousie University about $9.5 million in January 2021. According to Maddie Stinson, the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) president, the university owes students a better explanation of where that money is going.
The province announced in January it would be providing $25 million to universities across Nova Scotia to help them “manage the impact of the pandemic,” according to a provincial news release. Dalhousie received $9,479,700 in total.
The university will be using the money to cover a $9.8 million shortfall in its operating budget, according to Janet Bryson, Dalhousie’s associate director of media relations and issues management.
Without government assistance the university would have to use funds from its reserve budget to cover the shortfall, Bryson said. The reserve budget is made up of budget surpluses from previous years.
According to the fiscal update published in June 2020 the university believed it would be facing a $28.5 million shortfall due to COVID-19. At that time, the university planned to reduce faculty budgets by 2 per cent and cut funding for teaching equipment purchases in half to help address the shortfall. Dalhousie has a reserve fund of $12.2 million, bolstered by a $6.4 million surplus in the 2019-2020 operating budget. At this time, the university planned to reduce faculty budgets by 2 per cent and cut funding for teaching equipment purchases in half to help address the shortfall.
The shortfall took place because of several expenditures the university had to make due to COVID-19, Bryson said in an email to the Dalhousie Gazette.
According to Bryson, “Dalhousie has an open and transparent budget process.” But only if students know where to look and understand institutional budgets, Stinson said.
“I think it’s Dal’s responsibility to continue to educate students about how they’re spending our fees in a way that’s digestible to students,” Stinson said. “That’s something we’ve brought up repeatedly, being that our student body doesn’t have the time to look through a budget report.”
From surplus to shortfall
The new funding “will allow the university to support much-needed programs that were approved in the 2020-2021 budget,” Bryson said.
The shortfall is a result of both new investments made in response to COVID-19 and the waiving of certain student facility fees, which resulted in a revenue loss that contributed to the shortfall, according to the 2020-2021 budget.
“The university provided significant financial support for students through increased bursaries and by waiving some fees,” Bryson said.
According to the budget, the university spent $10.6 million on this support, $4.2 million on increased bursaries and $6.4 million in fees normally paid by students.
The university waived all athletic programming and fitness centre fees for both the fall and winter terms, according to the budget.
“The fitness centre is open, but access is limited due to Public Health requirements, and many students are completing their studies remotely,” the budget said.
Increased bursaries for students also contributed to the shortfall covered by the provincial funding, Bryson said.
The university doubled its bursary funding from $3 million to $6 million due to the pandemic, according to the budget. Additionally, the university increased its support for student assistance programs for international students and students in designated groups by $455,000, according to the budget.
Other expenditures that contributed to the shortfall are those that were needed to transition all classes at Dalhousie online for the 2020-2021 academic year.
The university had allocated $6 million to focus on strategic initiatives, things such as equity, diversity and inclusion, or student recruitment, according to the June 2020 fiscal update. Due to the pandemic, $2 million of that had to be re-allocated for immediate spending on pandemic preparation.
According to the budget, that includes additional teaching assistants and other supports for faculty, funds for Academic Technology Services, and the Centre for Learning and Teaching to facilitate online learning through new software, as well the Together@dal project –– a program launched in the fall meant to connect new students with the campus community.
Students deserve more transparency
Every month, Stinson and the DSU executive team meet with members of Dalhousie’s senior administration to discuss student issues on the DSU radar.
Prior to the January meeting, the executive team consulted with members of the DSU council and other students to gain their opinion on how the funding could best be used.
“When the executive brought it up, we were very quickly told that the topic of the $9.5 million in public funding wasn’t up for discussion,” Stinson said.
Covering the shortfall is the goal of the funding, according to the provincial press release, which said the province issued the dollar amounts in response to information provided by the universities on expenses incurred during the pandemic.
“I do recognize that having a deficit in our budget does require attention,” Stinson said. “But when the university very publicly receives funding from the province, I do think that our community should be made aware of where that funding goes, and in this case, saying that that information is present, and the justification for that choice is present in our budget, I don’t think is enough of an explanation,” she said.