Vancouver Island University is grappling with consecutive multimillion-dollar deficits it says were brought on by COVID-19.
The university’s 2023-24 budget includes an anticipated shortfall of $12.6 million, which follows a 2022-23 budget with an $11.6-million deficit. In this year’s draft budget, VIU stated it has been in a deficit position since 2019-20. According to previous budgets and audited statements, VIU posted a $3-million deficit in its 2019-20 fiscal year and a $9-million deficit in 2020-21.
In an e-mail, VIU told the News Bulletin the deficit is due to enrolment not having returned to pre-COVID levels, a situation many post-secondary institutions are experiencing. “Record inflation” is also having an adverse effect, it said. Enrolment totalled 13,671 in 2019-20, 12,033 in 2020-21, 12,423 in 2021-22 and 12,960 in 22-23, and 13,000 students are expected in the coming school year.
VIU said it works with the B.C. Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills to ensure the ministry understands its financial situation, to address challenges, “and return to a balanced budget.” It took a “conservative and integrated approach” when developing this year’s budget and “is confident it can make the necessary changes to return to favourable economic position.”
“A two per-cent increase to domestic student tuition, what is allowed by the province for all public post-secondary institutions, and a five per-cent increase to international student tuition is included in the 2023-24 budget,” VIU said in an e-mail. “There was no reduction in the number of jobs at VIU in the 2023-24 budget.”
The university stated it will focus investments on student recruitment and retention as both a budget strategy and means of contributing to B.C.’s economy, pointing to a B.C. labour market report which notes that 789,000, or 80 per cent, of all job openings between 2022 and 2032 will require workers with some level of post-secondary education or training.
“VIU’s academic and trades programs are critical to filling these vacancies here on Vancouver Island and throughout B.C. We are constantly working to raise awareness of VIU’s programs to increase enrolment and provide skilled workers for B.C.,” the university said.
Cole Reinbold, VIU Students’ Union chairperson, said students are being disproportionately impacted. There are many courses being cut, and third- and fourth-year students, especially those enrolled in sociology programs, are settling for whatever courses are available.
“The course offerings are very, very limited in third and fourth year, fourth year especially, so I’m having to essentially take what’s given to me…” said the fourth-year marketing student. “I wasn’t able to get into the specifics of what I want my education to be about and I’m having to take general marketing research classes.”
Reinbold added that international students at VIU are noticing a discrepancy in tuition compared with domestic students. According to the ministry, international students must prove they can support themselves while studying in Canada.
“For international students, it makes such a huge difference because for them to get their permit to study here, they have to have $10,000 in their bank account, because you have to show that you have the money to be able to pay the tuition … they have to prove to the government that they can sustain themselves and go to school,” Reinbold said. “It’s more and more every year going towards only going to school.”
Universities operate independently from the government and are responsible for their own financial management, according to the ministry; however, an institution needs to obtain approval from the B.C. government to run a deficit, which VIU has done.
“We know that some post-secondary institutions have raised concerns about enrolment and tuition revenue, and we are working with them and the sector…” said Selina Robinson, B.C.’s post-secondary minister, in an e-mail. “The ministry is here as a partner to support post-secondary institutions with challenges that arise from year to year.”
The VIU Faculty Association did not respond to a request for comment.