Why we are undertaking TransformUS

One of the things that is very much on our minds concerns why the university is doing TransformUS.

TransformUS is one of seven strategies we are following to bring the university’s budget into sustainable balance.

At root, the issue is clear and simple: as a university we need to live within our means.

We have entered a post-secondary environment where 2% funding increases from government are likely the most we can expect in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile our costs have been growing by more like 5% pretty much every year for the last decade. A gap of a few percent may not sound like much, but on a $400-500 million operating budget (growing over the years) it amounts to a lot of money.  And these shortfalls will be additive: roughly $10 million in year one, $20 million in year two, and so on. We have presented the more exact projections in town halls and on the finances website. The result would be a $44.5 million gap by 2016 – a growing deficit if no action were taken.

Fortunately, unlike some universities that have seen steep cuts, we are not facing an immediate large deficit. There is no financial crisis. We have time to prevent a large deficit from occurring. To do so, we need to cut costs, increase revenues, and narrow what we do to what is most important. We have to be sure we can fund what we do within reasonable projections, not proceed wishfully and hope that future growth will bail us out.

TransformUS will do three important things for our university. It will provide a basis to find $20-25 million in savings, a target identified for TransformUS by the president as prudent in light of overall financial projections. It will direct $5 million of the savings to high-priority initiatives. And it will help us learn prioritization as an ongoing way of thinking and operating.

All of this is in order to sustain the things we most care about as a university:  learning, discovery, and positive impacts for students and communities. We need to manage our resources well in order to be free, and autonomous, and successful, and highly regarded, which are the things all people in universities hope for.

Brett and Greg

6 thoughts on “Why we are undertaking TransformUS

  1. It appears that the main claim in Dickenson’s assessment of reasons for an ever growing cost of higher eduction is the proliferation of programs.
    The University of Saskatchewan has just concluded the first phase of TransformUs using tools advocated in his book and in workshops
    dedicated to his method. The process we are going through has been described as a “prioritization approach inspired by Dickenson”.

    In table 1 in the Academic Program Transformation Task force report (p. 11) we are presented with the global view of the program prioritization process. The most telling figures are the number of programs (candidates for
    enhancement) in the first quintilie (16), and the program operating allocation for the group of 16 which is 21% of the total
    program allocation, while 98 programs in quintile 5 (candidates for phasing out) comprise 3 % of the program allocation.
    Consequently, after a simple arithmetic using entries in columns 2 and 4, we see that, on average, a program in the first quintile is 47 times more expensive than a program in the fifth quintile. Thus it would be hard to defend the claim that the proliferation of programs is really behind the increase of the cost of education at the University of Saskatchewan. While the claim might be true for the University of Northern Colorado it is far from true at the University of Saskatchewan. Why is then Dickenson’s claim so far off the mark in our case? The answer seems to lie in the simple fact that the UofS has been engaged in the process of prioritization for at least a decade and also in the process of de-prioritazation for even longer than that and-as a consequence-the quinitiles are correlated with a decade of investments and de-investments. This is further corroborated by the existence of a noticeable correlation between the quality of buildings in which the programs reside and the placement into quintiles (it suffices for example to compare the quality of office space in the Spinks or the Physics Building with, for example, the McLean Hall). In summary, the report of the Academic Program transformation Task force confirms that the UofS has been engaged in a successful area/discipline prioritization. On the other hand the report provides no support to the claim that the financial exigency might have its origins in the abundance of academic programs.
    It appears that the report lends more credence to the opposite claim: it is the process of prioritization of areas and disciplines that is very expensive.

    • It would be more of a problem if the programs in the fifth quintile were our biggest – that would suggest a serious lack of alignment with priorities. However, I would treat the current cost allocations as approximate; time will tell whether so many programs actually involve minimal resources. I expect we would benefit from having fewer programs in a university our size. I understand the U of Melbourne has gone down to just 10 undergrad programs for the whole university. Without going that far, we could simplify and reduce the rigidities in how we allocate resources like teaching time.

    • Numerous Canadian universities are now looking at prioritisation approaches inspired by Dickeson. I am not aware of more rigorous or scientific alternatives. I have attended one of Dickeson’s workshops, and it is clear to me that his is not a “model” but rather a compilation of variations that have worked in many universities. For example, his ten criteria are not his formula, but are rather a list of all the criteria he has ever seen any university adopt. We are encouraged to identify and assign weightings to criteria, one of many adaptations that makes our own unique U of S prioritisation process – which the task forces have done.

  2. I am concerned about major inconsistencies in the process and in the report. For example, when concerns were raised that quintiles based on numbers of programs would lead to a strong bias against small programs, the Academic programs task force chairs stated in person and in their May 2, 2013 blog:

    “Through the review process, the job of the task force is to place programs in these quintiles, not by the number of programs, but by the proportion they represent of the portion of the operating budget available for academic programs. The result will be that programs whose costs add up to 20% in budgetary terms will be placed in each quintile, based on the assessment by the task force of all academic programs.”

    However, now the report indicates in Table 1, that for quintiles 3,4, and 5, in fact the quintiles have been based on numbers of programs and not program costs and
    indeed quintile 5, for example, is dominated by small, low cost programs, as predicted. When the Task force decided to abandon the intended meaning of the quintiles, they should not have resorted to using the even more faulty “numbers of programs” scheme. This has resulted in several efficiently run small honours and/or interdisciplinary programs being put in quintile 5; these programs attract excellent students who are interested in a challenge and want their program/degree name to accurately reflect their area(s) of specialization. Such programs fit well with the university’s goals to foster excellence and to enhance the student experience by offering students what they want at very little (if any) extra cost.

    • The task forces described their processes in their reports. I know that they strove to equalize the quintiles (by resources) as much as they felt was reasonable, but each quintile has a qualitative descriptor and in the end they placed each program in the quintile where they thought the descriptor best applied to that program. The placement in a quintile amounts to a specific recommendation for each program, and is not simply a byproduct of an arithmetic function.

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