DATA SOURCES

The analysis on this site compares financial performance from two perspectives – current versus past, and current versus peer-group average. The comparisons utilize two sets of data provided by the universities themselves – the financial data and the enrollment data, This section provides an overview of them.

 

 

The Financial Data

 

The financial data comes from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO). CAUBO was founded in 1937 “to promote the professional and effective management of the administrative, financial and business affairs of higher education institutions.” It is funded by the universities, with senior university administrators forming its board of directors.

CAUBO performs many roles to support university administrators, including the publication of a comprehensive annual report entitled “Financial Information of Universities and Colleges” (CAUBO Report). This is how the CAUBO website describes the report:

Financial Information of Universities and Colleges is an annual publication prepared by Statistics Canada for the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO). CAUBO obtains the financial data for the publication by undertaking an annual survey of its degree granting member institutions. Users have indicated that the publication is a comprehensive reference source for the financial data of universities and colleges in Canada.

CAUBO provides detailed guidelines to assist universities in the task of submitting their financial information, and with the goal of promoting consistency in the submission of data. These guidelines appear on the Financial Information page of its website, along with financial reports dating back to 1999-2000, and the following statements (underlining added for emphasis):

The Financial Information of Universities and Colleges (FIUC) is an annual publication that is jointly prepared by CAUBO and Statistics Canada. It is a valuable source of information for financial data at Canadian universities and colleges.

The FIUC is the only national source for comparable and consistent financial information for Canadian universities. It provides financial information to facilitate statistical and trend analysis on an aggregate level. It also allows users to study and understand long-term trends in university finance and expenditures, at both the institutional and national levels.

However, the guidelines (most recent version HERE) do incorporate a statement on limitations (Section B). It includes, inter alia, the following statements:

While users require financial data that are consistent from one year to the next and comparable between institutions, users must also appreciate that notwithstanding the use of detailed Guidelines to assist preparers, there are limitations in the comparability of the data. The data is most useful when aggregated and used for trend analysis. As users move from aggregated data to data that directly compares institutions, either individually or even between provinces or regions, the comparability of the data has limitations.

Limitations in the comparability of the data can result because of differences in the underlying accounting practices followed by institutions. Even the most stringent of reporting guidelines cannot eliminate differences resulting from different underlying accounting practices.

Limitations can also result from other inherent differences. Institutional comparisons are subject to interpretation and clarification because of differences such as size, academic programs, structure, physical environment, management philosophy, and budgetary and accounting procedures. Interregional comparisons must also recognize differences such as various sources of funding, fiscal year-end dates varying from March 31st to June 30th, and variations in provincial policies and provincial funding responsibilities.

The 2010-11 CAUBO report contains an important note in the following statement:

Quebec Fiscal Year-End Change Beginning with the fiscal year ending in 2011, all universities in Quebec have changed their fiscal year-end from May 31 to April 30. As a result of this change, their audited financial statements and hence the corresponding FIUC data reflect an 11 month period (Bishop’s University: 10 months). The detailed data for Quebec universities are presented for information only and cannot be adjusted to reflect a 12 month period. Use of these data should be done with caution and in awareness of these limitations.

The impact of this fiscal year change can be seen in some of the multi-year charts for all categories except those which exclude the Québec schools. However, there is no such impact in any discussion that compares start-year data with end-year data.

 

Adjustments made to the CAUBO Data to facilitate comparability on this site

Three changes have been made to the CAUBO data to allow as much “like for like” comparability on this site as reasonably possible. The first, inflation adjustment, is normal practice for an exercise of this kind. The other two relate to CAUBO line items on which individual universities take differing approaches – Sales of Services & Products, and Internal Sales & Cost Recoveries. The rationale for the adjustments is outlined below.

Inflation Adjustment

All financial numbers utilized in the comparisons on this site have been re-stated to latest-year dollars.

Sales of Services and Products

The majority of universities in the study group report at least most of these incomes in the Ancillary Fund, but some schools report a portion in the General Operating Fund or the Special Purpose & Trust Fund. The adjustment involves omitting this income from General Operating Income at those schools that have reported it there. This adjustment produces no significant impact. The income-based analysis focuses on provincial grants and student fees. Analysis based on total income is based on total income excluding Sales of Services and Products, unless stated to the contrary.

Internal Sales and Cost Recoveries

The CAUBO guidelines include a relatively short list of instances in which “differences between institutions (can) result in limitations in the comparability of financial data”. Most of them will not exert any significant impact on the comparability on which this site is based, but this one required a decision to be taken:

Internal sales and cost recoveries – Depending upon particular management information systems and business practices, an institution may report amounts by reducing offsetting expenditures or as internal cost recoveries.

Here’s how the CAUBO guidelines defines Internal Cost Recoveries … :

(c) Internal cost recoveries – the recovery, allocation, charge-out or transfer of costs between funds or functions. Internal cost recoveries refers specifically to indirect or overhead costs.

… and describe the reporting process:

Internal cost recoveries are also to be reported in such a manner as to avoid double counting of expenditures. The preferred method is direct allocation – that is, by reducing the expenditure types in the fund or function from which the costs are allocated, offset with a corresponding increase in the same expenditure types in the fund or function to which the costs are allocated. This approach provides users with better functional comparisons of individual expenditure line items. Alternatively, where direct allocation is not possible or feasible, the internal cost recoveries can be reported separately under an expenditure line item (a recovery) in the fund or function from and to which the costs are allocated (see Section III.C.3 – line 20).

One of the main purposes of internal cost recoveries is to enable universities to recover the indirect costs of sponsored research (commissioned by external parties) from the Sponsored Research Fund. In the absence of such a recovery, the General Operating Fund would be bearing costs that relate not to General Operating activities but to Sponsored Research; this would deprive General Operating of funds that should be supporting its own core functions, including Instruction.

However, some universities utilize internal cost recoveries to a greater degree than others – and three of the Top 25 do not appear to use them at all. More to the point, some universities (to varying degrees) use them to apportion costs out of the sub-functions within General Operating. The most commonly impacted sub-function is Central Administration, where the cost recoveries have the affect of producing a lower-than-actual total cost. Other GO sub-functions can benefit in this way, including Physical Plant and Computing & Communications.

As this site concentrates primarily on the General Operating Fund, the intent behind these adjustments is to remove any Internal Cost Recoveries that have the net affect of reducing the real cost of an activity and impairing comparison. They are not large numbers, but the utilization of Internal Cost Recoveries varies widely and impairs comparability.

Analysis on this site based on total expenditure will be based on total expenditure excluding Internal Sales and Cost Recoveries, unless stated to the contrary.  

Given all of the foregoing, the financial information published by CAUBO is sufficiently comparable for the purpose of this site. The vast majority of the data appears to be consistent, with the universities reporting numbers that are generally in line with those of their peers and with the national trends. There are very occasional apparent anomalies, in which an individual school returns a number significantly “out of whack” with its peers. These instances are not only infrequent, they also exert negligible impact on group averages because those averages are calculated based on group dollar-totals rather than individual school percentages. CAUBO can be found HERE.  

 

The Enrollment Data

We have already facilitated year-to-year comparability by converting the financial numbers for each year since 2000-01 into latest-year dollars. However, a second variable impacts comparability on both a year-to-year and university-to-university basis – enrollment. It is particularly impactful in the General Operating area, where activities such as Instruction and Student Services are directly affected by changing student numbers.

Numerous factors impact on a university’s overall activity level, but the most influential and quantifiable revolves around student numbers. The ideal situation is one in which the comparisons are both inflation-adjusted and enrollment-adjusted.

When I first set out to achieve that goal I thought that gathering enrollment data would be a straightforward task. After all, one of the most basic questions we could ask a university is “How many students do you have?” But, in keeping with other elements that are more opaque than they should be, current and historical enrollment information is surprisingly difficult to find. At some universities it’s non-existent, and at others there are multiple answers to the same question.

After spending many hours searching for individual school data, I gave up in exasperation and started to utilize the enrollment numbers published annually by Universities Canada (“the voice of Canada’s universities”), in conjunction with Statistics Canada. Universities Canada has “represented the interests of Canadian universities since 1911.” The latest version of the enrollment data appears HERE.

Unfortunately, historical data is not readily available and, having only started capturing UC’s enrollment data in 2008-09, I had to find another source for the earlier years of the study period – 2000-01 to 2007-08. The source for the missing enrollment information was the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which, like Universities Canada, works in conjunction with Statistics Canada to gather the information. CAUT (“Canada’s voice for academics”) was founded in 1951, and currently represents 68,000 academic staff at 122 universities and colleges. It performs a variety of valuable roles, one of which involves the publication of an annual “Almanac” containing a wide array of information. You can visit CAUT at: https://www.caut.ca/ .

The involvement of Statistics Canada in the data collection covering enrollment for both Universities Canada and CAUT should ensure a consistent approach to these numbers across the study period.

 

Adjustments Made to the Enrollment Data to Facilitate Comparability on this site

The base enrollment data from the above sources covers four groups: undergraduate (full-time), undergraduate (part-time), graduate (full-time) and graduate (part-time). Each university has its own way of converting those values into a value known as FTE – full-time equivalent. However, in order to facilitate reasonable comparability, UniversityFinances.ca has taken a standardized approach to this exercise. The enrollment data used on this site assign a value of 1.00 to each full-time student, and 0.33 to each part-time student. Those numbers have been used in the calculation of total FTE enrollment.

So, when it comes to the accuracy and comparability of the data on which the analysis is based, it is difficult for anyone to discredit it. The numbers were submitted by the universities themselves in accordance with guidelines established by organizations they created many years ago, and continue to fund. They are literally the only source of this kind of information, and therefore the only public medium for university comparability and accountability.  

 

CAUTIONARY NOTE

In the interests of intellectual honesty I need to inject a note of caution.

I am comfortable with the comparability of the financial numbers used on this site; their compilation by CAUBO and Statistics Canada is an onerous exercise that they (and the universities) have been conducting for many years. The process is supported by clear submission guidelines. While there are some differences between the universities in accounting approaches, the financial information still has to adhere to acceptable accounting practice.

The financial numbers on this site appear to offer clear and direct comparability.

I am less comfortable with the enrollment numbers on which per-student (“Per FTE”) measures are based. That implies no disrespect to the collecting agencies (Universities Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and Statistics Canada).

The numbers appear to reflect some different counting approaches among the individual universities, although each school’s year-to-year approach seems consistent. For that reason a measure of caution should be exercised when viewing and comparing per-FTE data at the individual university level. However, there appears to be reasonable reliability across years, where the major sub-groups (Top 25, U-15) exhibit similar patterns.

The Per FTE dimension is an important one, and warrants inclusion even if this rider accompanies it.