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Budget Cuts Threaten U of A Law

Natasha Edgar (3L)

This has been a rough year for education in Alberta. The provincial government announced deep cuts to the education budget in the spring – taking with it the University of Alberta and the faculty of law. In August, university President Indira Samaresekera announced that the university was $76 million short of its normal operating budget.

Law students at the U of A pay the third highest program tuition on campus for a full-time course load. Only medicine and dentistry pay more per semester than the $5,899.69 paid by law students. The cost of tuition has not protected the faculty from being asked to make approximately 7% cuts and which will force the faculty to make changes in both the short and long term.

One of the most visible cuts has been to the library staff at the John A. Weir Memorial Library. The library cut 5% of their budget in the spring and is required to cut 8% from their current budget – although the exact amount is still unknown. As a silver-lining of the cuts, more law students were hired for part-time work at the reference desk.

The library’s focus is preserving the hours of the law library. “We’re concerned with efficiency” stated former Chief Librarian Kathryn Arbuckle, “there are not a lot of law students and the pedagogy is largely exam-based, so there are not a lot of reference questions. That factored into our decision making.” The important thing for law students to know is that they have some say over what services are available. “We want to meet the student demands” said Arbuckle, “students need to let the library know if the reference services are not adequate – and quickly.”

Cuts made by the faculty are the friendly faces of Renee Hunt, who worked in the Distribution Centre and fourth floor secretarial staff Merle Metke and Kim Cordeiro who were laid off. The positions are now filled by part-time staff. Students are already noticing these cuts and are especially concerned with the problems in the distribution centre. One student expressed a common sentiment following the week of delays, “I feel bad for [the part-time staff]” she said, “but I don’t have my books yet and I’m already falling behind on my readings.” Professors are also adjusting to changes on the fourth floor. As Professor Hopp handed out his unhole-punched syllabus he apologized to the class, saying, “there are no secretaries [on the fourth floor] and I mangled about 30 of them before I gave up.”

Scholarships, bursaries and awards distributed by the faculty have also suffered a slight decrease this year. In years past the faculty of law has distributed approximately $1.4 million to students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and awards. This year, the faculty has decided to some of this money to pay for the salaries of those in student services. “Rather than cut staff support for students we’re re-deploying approximately $150,000 differential tuition dollars to support the people working in student services” Dean Bryden said. There are still over $1 million available in scholarships, bursaries and awards and no donor sponsored awards have been affected. Distribution of funding to students also raises concerns about diversity of the program.  LSA President Adeel Mulla expressed concern, saying, “The fewer scholarships and bursaries we have, the more the diversity of our program will take a hit. What’s happening right now is worse for diversity than increasing tuition and ensuring that the money gets back to students who can make our faculty something special.”

The long-term impact may hit the faculty the hardest. This year no courses have been cancelled due to budget cuts, although the possibility looms large over future years. “Over time we may see an inability to replace faculty members who leave” Dean Bryden warned. The question then becomes, how will the faculty raise the money to maintain the quality of the current program? Dean Bryden was quick to emphasize that there were no fee increases this year, but that there are tough choices to be made in the near future about increasing tuition versus enrollment. “We are underpriced relative to competitor schools” said Bryden, “more tuition would give us an opportunity to replace faculty and strengthen our commitment to student services.” The Dean’s suggestion to raise the necessary money is an increase in enrollment of the incoming class size from 175 to 200. Although he described it as a “trade-off”, the Dean emphasized the need to continue the discussion about raising enrollment in the coming years with students, staff and faculty. “I’m not convinced the faculty wants it” he admitted.

The Law Students’ Association isn’t happy about about increasing enrollment either. The LSA is hoping to convince students that a tuition increase is the best option. Mulla explained the reason for the LSA’s focus on seeking a tuition increase, “[Increased enrollment] dilutes our degree and it’s just putting more people in the pot. It’s more people competing for jobs and to be honest, Ontario is a model of how bad things can get if you just keep increasing enrollment” he said.  In 2012 the Law Society of Upper Canada reported that 15% of law students were unable to find articles after graduation in comparison to the 2 – 3% of Alberta graduates and 3- 5% of British Columbia graduates unable to find articles. The largest incoming classes of first years west of Ontario are found at UBC – which states on their website that they admit 180 students to first year, followed closely by U of A with a goal of 175 students. Other law schools have much lower first year enrollment: Robson Hall admits 106, Calgary: 100, U of S: 126, UVIC: 110, and TRU currently has 300 students over all three years. Mulla focused on setting a standard for other western Canadian law schools. “If we do something, will other universities take our lead?” he asked, “and do we want to be known for creating an articling crisis in Western Canada?”

While a tuition increase is no student’s favourite news, Mulla assured students that regulations around a tuition freeze implemented years ago makes it difficult to increase the differential fee which reduces the chances of regular increases in tuition. “Every time there is a request for a tuition increase, it has to be formal” he assured me, “It stops us from having that slippery slope. Once the door is open it has to be a specific differential fee proposal and a specific allowance by the Minister.” The LSA is proposing a differential tuition fee increase of $750 a year over the next two years for a total tuition increase of $1500 which will bring it in line with tuition at the University of Calgary.

With cuts to the budget of the faculty, the choices are clear: the school must decide between increasing tuition or increasing enrollment. “However we approach the issue of tuition increases versus enrollment, it’s totally our call as students” said Mulla, who also promised students a chance to air their thoughts and concerns at a town hall during the school year.  The LSA will be conducting a plebiscite of law student opinions to guide the position they take going forward.

For the time being, the goal is to preserve the quality of the program, not to enhance the program being offered. The cuts faced by the faculty are in the range of 7% and the Dean was clear that there were no more planned layoffs of support staff and instead the faculty would look at cutting non-salary spending.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the staff, faculty, and students are pulling together to make this year a good one. One professor has offered to be paid the following year. The LSA has been working through the summer to receive the Student Union’s support for a tuition increase request should they decide to ask the Minister. The staff are continuing to put on a brave face for students – and even increasing the quality of programs in places where they are able. The student mentorship program has been revived in the form of the Dean’s Fellows Program and for the first time in a number of years, the faculty has hired a Director of Academic and Cultural Support. The Dean sounded confident in the program and its future. “We will continue to offer a first rate program” he promised, “students can be confident in this – this is a good law school with a first rate education. You did not make a mistake coming here.”