New University of Toronto president Meric Gertler wasted little time expressing the university’s dissatisfaction with provincial levels of funding for post-secondary education, citing funding pressures as a key challenge for the university in his installation address. The Varsity has recently highlighted the alarming growth of deferred maintenance at U of T, as well as the interaction of provincial funding structures and donor priorities with what gets built and fixed at the university. Despite the constant talk of funding levels and priorities, questions around deferred maintenance are still rarely discussed.
For many students, the first of these questions will be: What is deferred maintenance? Deferred maintenance occurs when the university spends less on maintaining its buildings in a given year than it thinks it should. The Facilities & Services department monitors how much upkeep has been delayed until future years in this manner, and their reports make alarming reading.
As of 2012, the university has some $484 million in deferred maintenance. If U of T were to decide to do all that work today, it would cost them one quarter of the university’s endowment. Amazingly, that’s not the alarming part of the problem; even if U of T were to spend that money catching up on maintenance this year, we would still have significant levels of maintenance necessary next year.
It is not difficult to see how the university has arrived at this point, and U of T’s administration is not doing anything that other large Canadian institutions have not done. Every year, U of T has to spend more than it earns — something that it cannot do. Many public institutions — including the ttc, school boards, and the provincial government itself — face this yearly dilemma. The province makes ends meet primarily by incurring debt, but other institutions often make up the funding gap by deferring spending on maintenance. If U of T were to defer other expenses — such as salaries, heating, or financial aid — people would notice. However, the university can easily get by unnoticed without spending millions on removing the asbestos from Sidney Smith, or other projects that are advisable in the long term but not immediately necessary.
It is important to note that deferred maintenance does not pose any immediate danger to the people using these buildings. Facilities & Services monitors the university’s infrastructure, and urgent repairs are carried out before they become a hazard. The problem, however, is that while the asbestos in Sid Smith can be safely contained for now, it will eventually have to go. The same is true for every job that can, for the time being, be safely put off until next year. Deferring maintenance also provides short-term savings at the expense of long-term costs, since labour, material, and evaluation costs increase every year.
Until 2008, U of T was slowly improving the situation; from 2005–2008, the amount of deferred maintenance decreased from about $300 million to less than $200 million, as U of T actually spent more on maintenance than the annual requirement. Since 2008, however, the trend has reversed. Both the rate of increase and the amount of deferred maintenance are now growing every year. Even though U of T’s contribution to maintenance has actually increased steadily since 2008, provincial funding has been declining, and total funding is not keeping pace with need.
This problem of ever-increasing deferred maintenance is compounded by the fact that donors and politicians alike want to fund exciting new projects, particularly innovative or glamorous new buildings. By going along with these plans U of T maximizes the total amount of grant and donation money it receives, and continues to grow its infrastructure and enhance its reputation. All of these are positive developments, and they often lead to tangible benefits for students. The downside is that the university can’t quite afford to maintain the buildings it already has. While some donations fund renovations, which include maintenance or revival funding, new building is almost always part of the deal, leading to even more maintenance cost as those buildings age.
Administrators have argued that U of T can neither tell donors what to fund nor change the government’s mind, and that it has to take advantage of these opportunities or risk falling behind its global competitors. This argument ignores the reality that, eventually, deferred maintenance will catch up with us. The university can devote more money to innovation and growth today by deferring maintenance spending. By doing so, however, administrators ensure that at some point in the future, U of T will have less to spend less on these goals as it is forced to divert funds to urgent up-keep spending.
Allowing donors and capricious provincial grants to set the university’s agenda for growth also puts decision-making in the wrong hands. The university certainly benefits from exciting new buildings, but it needs money for maintenance, as well as more classrooms, residences, and student space. We expect that the provincial government will spend money where it is needed, whether it is glamorous or not. The university and its students — who donors always express a willingness to listen to — must ask that donors provide money for what faculty and students are really asking for, rather than what benefits their reputations or desires for legacy projects. Gertler is a world-renowed urban geographer, and we hope that his academic background will inform a more comprehensive and thoughtful plan for the university’s development.
The Goldring family’s support for the Goldring Student Centre is an excellent example of donor funding for student space. This kind of support is very rare, and has been totally absent from the Student Commons fundraising process, which places the whole burden of funding on students.
The question of deferred maintenance is a question of leadership. The university is sabotaging its long-term growth to further its short-term growth. By incurring an enormous and growing amount of deferred maintenance, and by allowing donors and grants to set a haphazard course for growth, we are undermining the university’s future. University and provincial leaders are taking credit for the university’s current strength and growth, while ensuring a weaker future.