Smaller courses left behind by newest budget model

Profs say department-based funding discourages non-traditional courses.

Departments are incentivized to fill classrooms under the newest budget model.
Image by: Kendra Pierroz
Departments are incentivized to fill classrooms under the newest budget model.

Three years ago, students piled into cars headed into a forest north of Kingston for the first run of a course that, financially, shouldn’t exist.

Development Studies faculty Dr. Richard Day and Robert Lovelace teach “Re-Indigenizing People and Environments.” As a summer course, it ends an online reading portion with a 10-day trip where students forage for food, build a shelter and engage with Indigenous theory. 

To have two professors teach a small group of students is rare, because there’s little revenue to be made off the initial investment in the course. As a Queen’s course, Re-Indigenization is an exception to the rule. 

New courses are typically expected to make a profit, and Re-Indigenization makes a minimal financial return. According to Lovelace and Day, Professors, are often pressured to avoid creating courses like theirs, and to instead create courses that are more financially viable. 

This hasn’t always been the case at Queen’s. It emerged more recently as the result of a new budget model introduced in 2013. The model requires departments to generate their own revenue and set their own budgets, which encourages the pursuit of large, popular courses that provide better returns on initial investments. 

A 2009 Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning survey, however, suggests that most students prefer more individual attention, such as student-to-student discussion and professor comments. Individual attention is found more often in smaller classes.

Cameron Horrack, ArtSci ’15, said he found Re-Indigenization a more valuable class than larger classes in Development Studies. 

“A lot of what I learned in Re-Indigenization has stuck with me compared to, say, global political economy … in class,” he said. 

Dr. Richard Day says new financial realities have made it more difficult to create new courses. He said his experiences teaching Re-Indigenization has made him more sensitive to the budget’s more adverse effects. 

“Often you’ll hear [admin] say, we want to do more Indigenous studies, we want more experiential learning,” Day told The Journal in a Skype interview. “And I’ll be at a meeting and say, ‘That’s great. Do you have money for that?’”

Day suggests professors may go from the administration to faculty to department funding in hopes of securing course funding. However, when given the opportunity to secure funding, the course won’t necessarily reflect the professor’s initial vision.

“[The department] will say ‘Can you do Indigenous studies with, say, a hundred people in the class? Then maybe we’ll do it,” he said.

And they do run those types of courses — Queen’s began offering an Indigenous Studies minor in 2013 thanks to the popularity of the traditional courses among students. 

“You’ll never hear someone saying something so blunt as we don’t want you to do this, we won’t give you the money. You’ll hear instead ‘we love to have you do this’, so on and so forth, but someone else has to give you the money,” Day said. “You’ll never hear it the other way, because that’s bad politics.”

The University’s unsustainable budget became a growing concern the same year students travelled to the woods outside Kingston. In that year, Provost and Vice Principle (Academic) Alan Harrison faced a dire financial situation. 

At the time, per-student government grants made up 44 per cent of Queen’s budgeted operated revenues. Harrison told The Journal that year that government dependency was a major risk, especially during hard times. He said decreasing government grants would require Queens to dip into its reserve funds to pay its bills, and so the University needed to take another path.

As a result, he spearheaded a new budget model in an effort to stabilize Queen’s rocky finances and create a stable financial future. 

“It is crucial to diversify revenue sources, which will make us less reliant on government funding, and hence less at risk,” Harrison told The Journal in 2013.

When the transition completes in 2019-20, each faculty will generate its own income and set its own budget. Some operating costs are taken off for shared services, such as libraries. 

So-called “activity-based budgeting” funds university initiatives based on the revenue they are expected to generate. This negatively impacts the prospects of smaller, less cost-effective courses like Re-Indigenization.

Harrison said in the same interview that receiving a larger budget for a valuable activity pushes faculties and schools to be more profitable.

“Faculties and schools … are in the best position to ensure they are aligning their resources with their academic priorities,” Harrison said.

In practice, this model encourages departments to pursue cost-effective courses and larger enrollment.

If a new course hasn’t been historically offered in some form, professors typically  create a “Special Topics” course. These course pitches are roughly comparable to business pitches. 

Professor Day says the budget has negatively affected his ability to create courses.

“Because you’re told [by leadership] that’s nice that you want to do that crazy stuff, but we need something that will bring in 150 students. Teach something else that you’re not necessarily good [at] and you don’t necessarily believe in, because we need to do something for the side here and put butts in the seats,” Day said.

The Journal made requests through Queen’s Communications to speak to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Susan Mumm and the department heads for Sociology, Global Development Studies, Political Studies, English and Gender Studies for this piece. The Faculty of Arts and Science — which received the request from Communications — was unable to respond to requests for interviews by deadline.

Day claims larger schools, such as UBC, have experienced fewer constraints when offering less traditional courses, but this is mainly due to their size. 

Lovelace agreed.

“Queen’s is a medium-sized school, and because of that it doesn’t have the wiggle room like University of Toronto or UBC has, and that’s important for us to confront as an institution,” Robert Lovelace said. 

Both Lovelace and Day said students are looking for innovative courses, and the new budget model does adequately provide enough opportunities for students to take those courses. 

Their course Re-Indigenization — has yet to receive core department funding, and is still considered an application-based special topics course meaning funding isn’t guaranteed. Its continued identification as a special topics course means it’s not as secure as a course with core funding.

Despite having two professors and a small class size, Re-Indigenization to return to the woods this summer, funding permitting.


Alan Harrison, Budget, Re-Indigenization, Richard Day, Robert Lovelace

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