The Budget and the Clocks

Late last year, I noticed that one of the clocks in the hallway of the psychology wing in the Biological Sciences Building was wrong. Not a big deal--every year or so, a clock goes wonky, so I make a call and it gets fixed. Only, not this time.

A few days later, another clock was out. Then, a couple more. Next, several clocks froze. One by one, all the clocks in the entire building started to fail. At first, it was kinda funny, in a stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day way. What wasn't funny was the fact that the clocks weren't being repaired.

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Yesterday, the provincial government released the budget. It was not good news for Alberta's post-secondary institutions. In fact, President Samarasekera was "horrified," it was that bad. To keep up with inflation (for example, rising costs of physical goods and increases in salaries), the UofA needed an increase of 4%. (The government had promised an annual increase of 2% a year for three years, which still wasn't enough.) Instead, what was delivered was about a 7% cut.

For the past few years, because of insufficient provincial funding, faculties and departments have had to make cuts, on the order of 3%. This is why I don't hand out paper copies of the syllabus in all of my classes any more, and it's part of the reason why the Department of Psychology has one fewer Faculty Lecturer in Science. There's no more room to make sweeping across-the-board cuts. The main cost in the UofA's budget is salaries: academic staff and nonacademic staff. These salaries are negotiated with UofA administration, and cannot simply be cut, similar to teachers. (Interestingly, teachers are allowed to go on strike, whereas the UofA's academic staff are not.)

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A few weeks ago, the clocks started disappearing. All that remained were a few dangling wires. (Some of them, with one clock remaining on the other side freak me out. They remind me of the fembots from the 1970s Bionic Woman show. Brrr.)

Is this a good sign? They're taking the clocks out to be fixed? Or replaced? Maybe it's a bad sign. They've never had to remove the clocks completely. And they haven't been replacing any of the clocks. They're just...gone.

It turns out that the clocks are so old, they can't get parts anymore. Maybe they're trying to salvage what they can to scavenge parts from some of them and get a few clocks running again. Maybe the days of having the luxury of a clock in every hallway are gone.

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The government has put the UofA in a bad spot. Costs cannot be reduced further (at least, not without some pretty serious consequences like declaring a Financial Emergency). Revenue cannot be increased (the government has prohibited tuition increases to cover a shortfall). So what's left? Apparently, the magic bullet will come in the form of "mandate letters" that the government will send out, dictating to each institution what their role will be in a "more unified" post-secondary education system.

See, the government apparently sees a lot of waste due to duplication. The UofA confers undergraduate degrees in Arts, as does MacEwan University (and the UofC, and Mount Royal, etc.). That's inefficient! It's waste! Let's consolidate and increase efficiencies! Yeah, I don't see it either. Is it going to mean that, if you want an undergraduate degree in arts in psychology, you'd go to the UofA, but if you want economics, you'd have to go to the U of Lethbridge? Or maybe, the UofA would do away with all undergraduate degrees entirely, and just focus on professional degrees (nursing, law, medicine) and graduate degrees. Hmm, good luck with that.

The government also wants post-secondary institutions to be engines of economic diversity. That means doing research to solve real-world problems, forge patents, and bring in some money to the province. But don't you think that if some researcher was sitting on a goldmine idea, they would have already tried to cash in on it? What about the fact that most research is not applied, but basic (that is, designed to tell us about ourselves and the world we live in)? And what about those not doing scientific research, but scholarship in the arts? How do you commercialize that? This whole idea is: stupid.

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People in government must know what they're doing, right? I mean, they consolidated all the different regional health authorities into one big Alberta Health superboard, and that turned out...oh, right. It was a colossal screwup. Well, I'm sure they've learned their lesson, and they won't do anything like that again, right? Right?

Do I have any better ideas? Sure I do. Increase royalty rates on natural resources. Institute a sales tax (hey, as a lifelong Albertan, it pains me to say it, but with such volatile resource revenues, it just makes sense now). Scrap the flat tax and have progressive income tax instead. Each one of these would work--if there's any backbone of political will.

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Some people need clocks. The admin staff in the Psychology office need to time-stamp papers that students hand in. Students and instructors have to get to class on time. I synchronize my watch to the clock in my hallway to make sure I wasn't late to class. (if I'm 1 minute late to a class of 400 people, I've just wasted 400 people-minutes of time, or over 6 hours). The Department of Psychology has dipped into its budget and gone to Grand & Toy to buy a bunch of clocks.

Unfortunately, we can't afford to pay for clocks for the whole building. So I might be a bit late for class sometimes.

Say, do you have the time?

Why aren't you studying?

Update 3/8/2013 12:55p.m.: Half of the lights are out in Biological Sciences, the projectors in my first class were dead, and I can't log in to update my website. This does not bode well...


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