Breaking down the budget

A bird's eye view into Toronto's finances

Breaking down the budget

The budget surplus

The city’s chief financial officer has found a higher-than-expected budget surplus from the previous fiscal year. The new surplus figure, $154 million, exceeds previous estimates by $15 million. The expanded surplus has prompted some councillors to call for surplus funds to alleviate some of the more unpopular cuts included in the budget.

Much of the surplus comes from the land transfer tax, a source of revenue that Mayor Rob Ford has pledged to eliminate. City councillors fearful of backing unpopular cuts to city services have asked that the money be used to maintain services that had previously been on the chopping block, such as children’s nutrition programs, child care, and public transit.

Since the announcement of the increased surplus, however, conflicting reports about use of the money have surfaced. The CBC and National Post reported that the executive will pour all the money back into the TTC’s capital projects fund, used to help pay for streetcars ordered by the previous administration. The order still requires $700 million in payment.

The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, on the other hand, have claimed that various funding uses are still under consideration.

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Province slashes $66 million in research funds

New projects and grad students’ funding endangered

The provincial government’s decision to cut $66 million dollars in research funding for universities and hospitals has left U of T’s researchers scrambling to find other ways to fund their studies.

“We’re disappointed but understanding,” said Peter Lewis, U of T’s associate vice-president of research. “You only have to take a look in the papers to see the financial situation of the province.”

The government has withdrawn the funding to reallocate it to the Eastern and Southwestern Economic Development Funds, which will help businesses create jobs, and subsidize training, equipment, and technology for workers, as stated on the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs website. The government chose to move the funds to something they felt would more reliably stimulate Ontario’s economy.

“We have to put an emphasis on those things we think most directly help grow the economy and create jobs,” said premier Dalton McGuinty to the Toronto Star.

U of T and its affiliated hospitals receive roughly $1 billion annually for research. Of that amount, roughly $200 million goes towards operating costs, an area which the Ontario Research Excellence Fund — the fund that the government has now cancelled — helped supplement.

In the last round of funding, U of T received $8 million over three years. Lewis estimates this made up roughly five per cent of operating cost.

“It’s not a huge amount, but it’s kind of the lifeblood for research, so when it’s reduced there’s an impact,” said Lewis. “If you had to, had to make a cut, this one makes the most sense.”

The removal of financial backing will only affect newly proposed studies looking for funding, not ongoing research.

“These are grants that are applied for new projects. New projects definitely won’t happen, but it won’t be at the expense of closing down old projects,” Lewis said.

A December 13 letter from the Ontario Council of University Research to Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development and Innovation, expressed the concern and disappointment of researchers and highlighted the impact that the cut will have on Ontario’s economy.

According to the letter, “Cancelling [the research fund] will affect the development of new ideas and discoveries that feed the economic development pipeline in Ontario, both now and in the future.”

It also discussed the impact the cut has on researchers, especially since this year’s funding round and application procedures have already begun.

“Applications to funds take a great deal of commitment, time, and effort on the part of many individuals, both inside and outside our universities. In many cases, because round six was already well underway, teams had already been pulled together, partners had been engaged, and applications were written.”

Janet Madill, research advisor and transplant dietician at the University Health Network, expressed more concern for graduate students than for her own study.

“Less money means less opportunities for graduate students. We’ll have to decrease what we are asking for in order to help obtain students,” she said. “Students may obtain less money and therefore have fewer opportunities and fewer opportunities to live in Toronto due to increased cost of living. They may not apply to U of T.”

Madill, who is now researching oxidative stress and transplantation, calcium, and vitamin D in relation to obesity, said a lot of research funding opportunities that were available to her have closed, and that many researchers might have to redirect or limit their research in order to fit requirements.

Lewis said that University of Toronto research is doing what they can to support their researchers.

“We work very hard to support our researchers and encourage them to apply to other opportunities. We’ll do everything we can to minimize the damage.”

U of T’s credit rating on negative watch from close ties with provincial finances

University pension plan most affected by credit crunch

The provincial government’s financial struggle has put the University of Toronto’s credit rating at risk. U of T, as well as other public institutions across the province, has been affected by the government’s growing fiscal deficit due to reliance on funding.

On December 18, 2011, The Globe and Mail published that U of T’s credit outlook has gone from “stable” to “negative,” as reported by Canadian credit agency, Moody’s. This credit score highlighted the link between the public sector and government finances. As such, institutions offering education and health services will need to proceed with private methods of financing in order to counteract increasing debt.

“Moody’s links their rating of U of T to their rating of the province of Ontario, in part because the province provides a significant amount of the university’s funding,” explained Laurie Stephens, U of T director of media relations and stakeholder commuications.

JENNY KIM/THE VARSITY

“The University of Toronto is currently on a sound financial footing but the big provincial deficit will have negative implications for funding of all universities and colleges.”

Currently, U of T’s pension plan has been most affected by the provincial credit crunch. According to the Globe, the pension plan is experiencing a deficit of approximately $1 billion.

Nonetheless, U of T has begun addressing the pension deficit with a plan that it hopes will decrease any debt.

“The university has already begun to fund the pension deficit over a multi-year period in accordance with provincial regulation, primarily via lump-sum payments and increased annual operating budget allocations,” said Stephens. “[U of T] has successfully negotiated increased employee pension contributions with its largest staff unions and is in active negotiations with other unions and the faculty association,” she continued.

However, the province of Ontario will not be providing funding to tackle the pension plan deficit.

“It would be very sensible for the province of Ontario to follow the example of some others and exempt universities from solvency tests that apply best to corporations, not public institutions. But they have declined to do so,” said Stephens. “The province is not providing funding to help resolve pension plan deficits for Ontario universities.”

Although U of T must resolve its deficit, it must also act within the constraints of limited government funding and regulated tuition increases, according to UTSU vice-president external Shaun Shepherd.

“We’re seeing across the board, especially in the public sector, a number of different cuts, and although the university and the province have to tighten the belt a bit, at the end of the day the cost of that debt cannot be downloaded onto students as we have seen time and time again,” said Shepherd.

Stephens replied that programs designed to counteract the university’s deficit will not intrude on student life and that “any tuition increases will be within the provincial government’s tuition framework.”

“Our planning to deal with the pension deficit takes into account our commitment to invest in facilities, programs and the student experience as well as our commitments to current and future pensioners,” said Stephens.

Furthermore, Stephens highlighted that U of T has launched a $2 billion fundraising campaign to support academic programs but stated that it will not be pursuing other fundraising efforts in regards to the pension deficit.

OPIRG defunding halted by GSU

OPIRG rep shocked by GSU’s near termination of subsidy

After extensive discussions, the Graduate Student’s Union (GSU) voted against defunding the Ontario Public Interest Group (OPIRG) last November 25.

OPIRG, a volunteer-based group that facilitates research, education, and action about issues of social and environmental justice, receives an annual portion of student tuition — $5 for graduates and $1 for undergraduates — which constitute a significant portion of its operating budget.

OPIRG’s support for controversial groups such as the Communist Student Research Group and Students Against Israeli Apartheid, to name a few, has led some students to question whether they want to continue allotting tuition dollars in support of the group’s initiatives.

“I believe that students’ interests are not being served by continuing the relationship with this problematic organization,” said fourth-year history specialist Esther Mendelsohn.

In order to give students alternative options, OPIRG placed an advertisement in The Varsity that cited  information on how to opt-out of funding them.

According to the GSU executive committee, however, OPIRG did not properly advertise the opt-out option. They proposed that an online form should be available to make the process more accessible for students. As a result of the ad, the GSU contemplated defunding the group themselves.

“In case there are beliefs that an organization does not represent student interests anymore, a referendum may be initiated by a student petition or the GSU council to determine if such a relationship should be continued,” said Nikita Reznick, GSU’s academic commissioner.

In response, OPIRG published an updated advertisement and informed members of GSU’s possible termination of their funding.

“We were shocked to learn that certain executive members were advocating termination of our shared relationship,” said OPIRG representative Johanna Lewis in an email. “During this OPIRG/GSU meeting, GSU executive members were hostile toward OPIRG board and staff, and disclosed that they would be deliberating about terminating our relationship that same day.”

The GSU acknowledged OPIRG for fixing the ad but concluded that by informing their members of the situation, the group set off a “public attack against the executive that served to unnecessarily mislead our members,” as stated in their official statement.

GSU external commissioner Daniel Vandervoort said that the union’s statement should have been “more apologetic.”

“[The GSU] should have recognized the importance of OPIRG and the value of working closely with the organization to promote space on campus for different student perspectives.”

As both sides continue to move on from the incident, the GSU executive statement expressed hope that this is only a small detour from what has otherwise been a positive relationship between the organizations.

“The role of the GSU is to represent the best interests of the students,” said Reznick. “As a result, we believe that a positive relationship, one that serves in the interests of the graduate students, is important with an organization the students provide funding for.”

In its official statement, OPIRG said that it values its long-standing relationship with the GSU and that it looks forward to many more years of mutual support.

“In the future, the GSU executive should remember that their organization was central in establishing OPIRG-Toronto in 1982 through student referendum … and that our ongoing collaboration is in the best interest of all graduate students, even those who might not support all the work that OPIRG volunteers undertake,” concluded Lewis.

Random House takes over McClelland & Stewart Publishing

The University of Toronto relinquished its 75 per cent stake in McClelland & Stewart Publishing (M & S) to Random House of Canada Limited (RHC) Tuesday.

RHC previously controlled 25 per cent of the major Canadian publishing house, which was established in 1906 and has become a Canadian publishing staple, housing such as notable authors as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, and Michael Ondaatje.

The new acquisition, said Brad Martin, RHC’s CEO and president, will “ensure the growth” and “long-term stability” of M & S during these hard economic times.

The 75 per cent share of M & S was donated to U of T in 2000 by Avie Bennett, the previous sole owner, who then sold RHC the remaining 25 per cent share.

“The commitments they have made to upholding the tradition of M & S and the ongoing focus on Canadian publishing assures me that M & S is in good hands,” said Bennett in a press release.

With files from CTV.

Re-examining Canadian religion and law

Scholars gather to discuss the changing role of religion in a multicultural society

Re-examining Canadian  religion and law

Panelists and guests gathered last week at the U of T Multi-Faith Centre for a two-day policy consultation on religion, law, and human rights in the Canadian context.

Hosted by U of T’s Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the panel aimed to negotiate the contentious roles that religion and law play in public life.

The event was well-attended by faculty, students, and community members of all disciplines and religious denominations. The audience heard presentations by a number of experts in the fields of religious studies, human rights, and law.

Richard Moon and Iain Benson spoke in the last lef of the panel. JOAN SULLIVAN/THE VARSITY

The first segment, entitled Human Rights, Religion and Law, took place on January 11 and was opened by Pamela Klassen, U of T professor and director of the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative, and Barbara Hall, former mayor and OHRC chief commissioner.

“The policy that we’re moving to update has been impacted by events that have occurred over the past few years,” Hall said. “We have changing times and changing questions. The answers to those questions need to be examined and updated today.”

David Seljak, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo and lead speaker of  Wednesday’s panel, elaborated on Hall’s point.

He argued that religious discrimination has a long history in Canada, and that the solution is not exclusively more secularism but also a more inclusive definition of rights.

“We need to develop a sensitivity to lingering Christian privilege,” he said.

On Friday, the panel concluded with a public discussion of the legal aspects of accommodating religion in a multicultural society.

Presentations were heard from Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor and former Canadian Law Society Association president, and Iain Benson, a research associate at numerous South African organizations.

Moon opened Friday’s discussion with some observations on the legal character of religious rights and freedoms under the Canadian Charter.

He pointed out that, in many cases, legal questions of religious accommodation come down to finding a balance between competing interests, such as corporal punishment of children, and argued for the need to recognize both the importance of religion in the lives of believers and the practical limits of state authority.

Benson ended the panel with the idea that law and politics can produce an agreement between different groups. He argued that convergence is not possible in a diverse society and that we should recognize that some beliefs are irreconcilable.

“There is a tendency to think that if we talk long enough we’ll eventually agree, or that law and politics will make us agree. That is an illiberal conception of dialogue and process,” he said. “We are not progressing towards a state of homogeneity but are instead stuck with diversity. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it’s the earmark of a democratic society.”

Ultimately, the panel allowed for a productive conversation between policy makers, academics, and students about the role of religion in public life.

Before finishing his presentation, Benson reminded participants of the need for respect when dealing with matters of creed.

“If we start our discourses with a genuine respect for ‘the other’ then we are in a place of more honesty and respect moving forward.”

Military training, possible future for Canadian universities?

Forms of military service could soon be introduced in Canadian universities and colleges through the Canadian National Leadership Program (CNLP), according to “Answering The Call: The Future Role of Canada’s Primary Reserve,” the Senate’s December 2011 interim report.

The program is geared towards undergraduates and students enrolled in it would take part in a variety of leadership and military training courses.

Rob Roy and John Richmond of Breakout Educational Network, a non-profit organization that will integrate CNLP into the Canadian education system, suggested that the program would “connect Canadians with their military” and provide “hands-on, tangible leadership training.”

Chief of Reserves and Cadets, Rear-Admiral Bennett, advocated the CNLP proposal.

“There is no question about the value of engaging Canadians in a leadership experience expanding their leadership abilities,” he said.

The pilot project is estimated to cost $1.6 million a year and will involve 50 students.

Vampire literature course offered for first-year students

Fans of Dracula, True Blood, and other vampire-centered fiction can now look forward to studying these mythical creatures in class.

According to a Faculty of Arts and Science press release, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures offers the course Our Vampires, Ourselves, as part of the First-Year Seminars Program.

The seminar allows students to examine vampiric myth and study these supernatural characters as reflections of society.  The department’s associate chair of undergraduate studies, professor Erol Boran, teaches the course.

For the first half of the term, students study the classic Dracula and then explore modern images of vampires in the second half. Our Vampires, Ourselves has been popular among students since it was created and will be offered again next year.