Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Sailing into the wind

UNBC president Daniel Weeks admits he's facing an "almost perfect storm of problems" but he seems to have the captain's optimism in hard work, quick adaptation and smart choices to reach clear skies and calmer waters once more.

UNBC president Daniel Weeks admits he's facing an "almost perfect storm of problems" but he seems to have the captain's optimism in hard work, quick adaptation and smart choices to reach clear skies and calmer waters once more.

The university's board of governors approved a $75 million budget on Saturday, erasing a $2.24 million deficit with a two per cent tuition increase and a handful of temporary adjustments. That's a great victory but it doesn't address "declining tuition revenue, reduced government grants and increasing compensation costs," the three-headed monster that could leave a $3.7 million deficit in the 2016-17 budget and a $4.3 million deficit the year after that, according to the university's own budget documents.

The terrible irony is that Canada's Green University, as UNBC markets itself, is no longer sustainable in its current form. Any operation, whether in the public or private sector, that has declining revenues and increasing costs is doomed to fail unless it changes that equation quickly. While this year's deficit worked out to about three per cent against the overall budget, it will be more than five per cent in just two years without a dramatic change to university operations.

Put another way, addressing a total budget deficit of more than $10 million over the next three years won't come easily. With budget consultations planned for this fall, Weeks said Saturday it would be "somewhat irresponsible" to talk about cuts but it would still be prudent to start thinking about them.

That's because there is nothing on the horizon in the short-term future to indicate that revenues will increase. Student enrolment has been gradually decreasing for more than a decade at UNBC and is likely to see a sharper decrease over the next five to 10 years, as the shrinking student population in School District 57 and most areas across the region graduate high school and start their post-secondary education. This coming year alone, UNBC expects to collect $925,000 less in tuition revenue than last year. That problem is exacerbated by the Ministry of Advanced Education's reductions in operating grants to UNBC - $128,000 less in 2013-14, $512,000 last year and a projected $665,000 this year.

With few prospects in the near future for growth in its two main revenue streams, cutting costs appears to be UNBC's only path through this storm. While School District 57 has vacant properties and buildings, along with underutilized schools, to drive down costs and provide one-time revenue boosts, UNBC has to look long and hard at the viability of programs and services that have seen dwindling student investment.

Perhaps that explains Weeks's optimism in light of the rough seas before him.

While others might see cuts and losses, he sees the opportunity to create the 21st century UNBC, a university lighter and more nimble, a university more responsive in adapting to the changing social, economic and educational needs of area residents. That will likely see him forging further partnerships with CNC, SD 57 and other educational bodies in the central and northern interior, and more branches of government and the public sector, such as the health authority and municipalities, as well as industry and the private sector.

Those budget consultations this fall will be critical. All the above named parties need to be at the table, as do students, faculty, staff, alumni and residents with a stake in UNBC's future. While the central questions on the table will revolve around ideas to balance the following year's budget, that will be the time to address the broader problems of declining revenues and increasing costs.

Later this month, the founders of UNBC will be celebrated for the great gift they provided for Prince George and region 25 years ago. At the same event, Weeks plans to share his vision for the next quarter century at UNBC. It would be unfair to expect Weeks to sail through the storm all on his own, with only the support of the school's board of governors and senior administration.

It took a community effort to get UNBC this far. Now is the time for a new generation of community and regional leaders to step forward, to help get the school through its current challenges and back to smoother sailing.