Scott Mabury is the University of Toronto’s vice-president, university operations. 

The office, which has only existed for about two-and-a-half years, is responsible for aligning facilities and services management and the university’s budget with its academic mission. It is also responsible for ancillary services, including food, parking, and certain campus residences. 

In short, Mabury is tasked with optimizing the university’s relationship between its faculty members and students. 

The Varsity met with Mabury to discuss the university’s operational challenges, tuition fees, and funding.

The Varsity: What is the biggest operational challenge facing the university today? 

Scott Mabury: Our fundamental steady-state budget: revenues lag expenses. We have a structural budget challenge, which I talk about every year in the budget presentation. If we just froze the university now — the number of faculty and students, the number of undergraduate versus graduate students, the number of international versus domestic students — then there’s a gap between the revenues and expenses. Expenses, primarily, at the University of Toronto are salaries and benefits — compensation — which have been running close to five per cent… while revenues are close to three per cent… We deal with that by growing, by changing the mix going on. We try to control cost as much as possible, and we look for efficiencies… So my portfolio has a $50 million operational excellence target. We announced that November 1, 2013. Within five years from that announcement date, we will have identified $50 million in savings from operational excellence initiatives. So we project now, at the end of that five years, already we’ve identified about $46 million… The biggest challenge is constantly finding ways to be more efficient, more productive, [and] more excellent. 

TV: Ontario is obviously dealing with funding issues. How does the university deal with the provincial funding shortfall?

SM: By operating smarter and better and trying to be as efficient and productive with the resources we have as possible. Our budget model — the Toronto budget model itself — is unique in all of Canada. There are lots of universities now mimicking it and adopting all of it, or making some portions of it their own. Many, if not most, are going this way because our budget model is, I believe, best in tune with our academic mission. The academic missions drives the budget that you put in the hands of deans and chairs at the front lines — and the front lines meaning between the faculty member and the student, because that’s why we’re here… Our budget model is best aligned with optimizing what happens there. That alignment means the university has weathered the challenges, [and] found opportunities… It is a challenge that all of our revenue streams — 87 per cent of our budget is connected to [students]. It comes from tuition and government grants. When I came to Simcoe Hall in 2009, the amount of dollars we got from tuition and the amount of dollars we got from government grant were perfectly matched. Now, it is 55 per cent to 34 per cent, I think. Tuition as a proportion of the pie has gone up; government grants have gone down… [The province] gives us more money total, but not per student. That’s the key. 

TV: Has the provincial government given any indication that they will increase per-student funding?

SM: Nothing. So I’ll quote directly from The Globe and Mail — the article about providing funding for international graduate students. That was a high priority for us because the University of Toronto has not positioned itself to just do well in Ontario. It’s not positioned itself to just do well in Canada. It’s positioned itself to do well on a global scale. That means we do need to attract the best and brightest graduate students from the world here. We have not been doing that because there’s no funding for [foreign] graduate students in Ontario, while there is in other provinces. That’s the big difference between us and the UC Berkeley’s of the world, the [University of] Michigans, the [University of] Washingtons — these great public universities in the world. We have less the funding per student than they do… Even given these funding constraints, we are competing with the best in the world in all the rankings… The fact that the University of Toronto does well in all of them… is quite an accomplishment. The only explanation I have for that is that we simply accumulate really good decisions. We hire well; we make good decisions about how to design programs to attract the best students; we align our physical resources to support faculty, staff, and students in how they’re working… we make sure that we take the resources we have — irrespective of how much less they are than our comparators — and we make sure we spend them as wisely as possible. 

TV: There’s been a lot of talk lately about rising international student tuition levels. Does international student tuition subsidize domestic student tuition?

SM: No — not in my view. We don’t parse out ‘What does an international student cost?’ versus ‘What does a domestic student cost?’ What we do know is that a domestic student attracts government grants. That’s a given. So certainly one of the things… is to capture that government grant differential. But the government grant is not the only taxpayer-supported investment in the university. One of those is the building you’re sitting in… The University of Toronto has 16 million square feet of space. If we had to build it again, multipled by $500 — a small number, and most of the people who work for me say it costs more than that — I think that works out to $8 billion or more. Those weren’t paid for by international students. Those were largely tax dollars or donations — but frankly, more tax dollars, overall. And then the $1.2 billion per year in research dollars… That’s almost all government funding. That’s taxpayer supported, meaning international students interface with that benefit of coming to a highly research-intensive and highly research-supported university. Part of the thing here is there’s differential tuition because the Canadian taxpayer is funding the university to a significant amount. For me, the question is: “Are these international tuition fees dissonant with the quality of the experience? Are they dissonant with comparable tuitions at universities we are in competition with, or comparable to us?”… For 14 years, the university has been raising international tuition fees. And for 14 years, the numbers of applicants has gone up and the yield has gone up. So the quality has gone up over that entire period, the numbers have gone up over that entire period. The evidence suggests that the University of Toronto, as a place to pursue postsecondary education, is viewed — on a global scale — as a great place to come. 

TV: Do you see a maximum dollar cap on where international, and also domestic, tuition fees will go? 

SM: No. That would be disastrous for the university… I don’t see employee groups saying: “I will freeze my salary and benefits.” I don’t see that happening in any domain anywhere in the world. Ultimately, that would cause a degradation of quality of experience. It would increase student-to-faculty ratios. If expenses are going up and revenues go to zero [per cent per year], we’re still paying average salary and benefit increases about five per cent. If you run that out, what happens? That’s the equivalent of saying: “The price of milk stays constant forever. So why would anyone milk any more cows?”

TV: So it’s foreseeable that it could surpass tuition levels in the United States?

SM: Well, certainly not under the current tuition fee framework in Ontario, held where they are at three per cent. I don’t see them ever catching up with Michigan, for example. And Michigan is our comparator. They have more than twice the dollars per student that we do… Back in the 1990s, tuition fee rates year-over-year were quite a bit higher. But the sticker price is the wrong question. Net tuition is a number that everyone in the United States follows carefully. How much do students actually pay of the posted price? We’ve been reporting that every year. The number for first-entry undergraduate students is 43 per cent, if you’re on OSAP, which about 54 or 55 per cent of students are. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.