Laurentian University is slowing down spending on the five-year strategic plan it introduced with much fanfare last year.
Some of the goals in the plan are launching several new programs and improving existing ones, modernizing its Sudbury campus, completing a Laurentian campus in Barrie and even reintroducing men's and women's varsity hockey teams.
But Carol McAulay, Laurentian's vice-president of administration, explained that the university is working with $678,000 less revenue for the school year than it had anticipated a year ago, or $8.4 million less in the next five years.
Laurentian was originally supposed to invest $31 million in strategic plan initiatives by 2017-2018. This has been reduced to $26 million. However, the university plans to spend another $6 million on the plan in 2018-2019.
In some cases, the university will do all the planning required for specific initiatives in the strategic plan, but the actual spending will take place a year later than anticipated, McAulay said.
“It's really adding more resources,” she said. “We're just pushing it out longer.”
McAulay made the remarks June 21, after the university's board of governors approved a balanced $136.9 million budget for the 2013-2014 school year. They also approved a financial plan that stretches into 2018-2019.
Part of the reason the university is short money is because the province decided to reduce the average tuition increase universities can impose on students from four per cent, as it's been for several years, to three per cent.
While tuition is going up, provincial grants are staying the same, meaning that in five years' time, students will be shouldering a higher percentage of Laurentian's costs than the government is, McAulay said.
Laurentian had also overestimated its enrolment growth, especially at its Barrie campus. The university has adjusted its enrolment growth predictions to 900 additional students by 2017-2018, rather than 1,050.
Budget consultations with students, staff and other stakeholders also resulted in about $1.3 million in additions to the budget.
Two of the major themes in the budget consultations were ensuring there's enough senior professors in each department to maintain their academic integrity and improving the technology on campus, McAulay said.
Beyond slowing down investments in the strategic plan, the university has decided to repay its $8.8 million accumulated deficit over the next 15 years rather than over the next seven years.
When asked if this will ultimately cause the university to pay more interest fees, McAulay said that's not the case because the deficit was covered with the Laurentian's own cash reserves.
Laurentian is also hoping it can move to a 50-50 pension contribution for its employees.
As it is right now, employees have about five per cent of their annual salaries deducted for pensions, where the university pays the equivalent of 12 per cent of its total payroll towards employee pensions.
McAulay said the university realizes this plan is dependent on collective bargaining. Laurentian's contract with faculty expires in June 2014 and its contract with staff in June 2015.
Before Laurentian board members voted to pass the budget, Laurentian University Staff Union representative Tom Fenske asked if it was wise for the university to push for 50-50 pension contributions.
He said the province may introduce legislation bringing in this requirement anyway.
“If you know the government is going to do it. I would not want us to go towards labour unrest ahead of it, if you know it's coming,” Fenske said.
“It's just something to think about. If we have labour unrest, and the government does it anyway, you have to ask yourself why we're doing it.”
Eliciting chuckles from some fellow board members, Laurentian neuroscience professor Michael Persinger suggested offering students free tuition for one year as a way to boost enrolment.
“The novelty ripples will be felt across the globe, and it will be seen not as desperation, but extreme confidence,” he said.
Acting Laurentian president Robert Kerr said he actually did receive a free university education in England. However, he pointed out that it would cost Laurentian $40 million to offer free tuition for a year.