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A plan for Alberta’s post-secondary institutions?

Alberta Budget 2015 – announced as the beginning of a “10-year vision for Alberta’s finances” – represents a turning point for post-secondary education funding and governance. Unfortunately, this turn signals the start of a race to the bottom, and the Prentice government’s lack of a coherent vision for the sector.
 
While outgoing University of Alberta President (and now C.D. Howe Institute national council member) Indira Samarasekera, represented the March 26 budget as being “remarkable” for “navigating the province in a very tough time,” many on campuses across the province would surely disagree. After the Alison Redford government turned a promised 2% funding boost into a 7% cut in 2013, Samarasekera’s comments reflect gratitude that the sector was at least warned that cuts were imminent well before Budget 2015 was released.
 
However, the budget contains few details about how to address the latest round of government-induced crises across Alberta’s declining post-secondary system. The government budgeted for a $55 million (1%) system-wide funding reduction this year and “essentially flat” support for at least three years after that. What this means is that – amongst other things – all institutions will be forced to absorb inflationary forces, raise tuition and fees, admit fewer students (especially minority and low income students), and endure the effects of top-down pressures to contain costs such as by implementing hiring freezes, voluntary severance schemes, and perhaps even bringing back the much-reviled furlough days of 2010.
 
The most substantial signals of what the Prentice government intends are contained in a couple sentences in Budget 2015 observing that in Alberta post-secondary institutions receive 58% of their funding from government, whereas the national average is 53%. The government will therefore work with institutions to “transition over five years to a more sustainable model that reduces the system’s reliance on government funding.” That is, it will force funding down to the national average (which was 80% two decades ago). How this is “sustainable” is left to the imagination; however it appears to be a strategy that follows moves by some US states that have starved post-secondary institutions of government support since the 2008 Great Recession. 

In other words, this a race to the bottom instead of one that shows true vision for the post-secondary education sector by doing what government is situated to do best: to raise the revenues needed to support Alberta’s unique post-secondary system.

What the Prentice government has outlined is hardly a “remarkable” vision for post-secondary education in the province. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is, after all, a heavily resource-revenue dependent province that has relied for decades on high oil prices for revenue rather than healthy taxation policies that every other province in Canada is better than Alberta at nurturing. Most embarrassing, in this context, is surely that the government continues to call “Alberta Tax Advantage” that which is actually the foregoing of billions of dollars in revenues – according to Budget 2015, if Alberta had the tax policies of British Columbia, for example, it would have an additional $12 billion in additional revenue this year alone. This is hardly an “advantage” given the systematic underfunding of Alberta’s public institutions.

These policies are clearly unacceptable in a province in which tuition increases and student-to-full-time-faculty ratios (resulting in less student interaction with faculty) are amongst the highest in the country, while having the lowest post-secondary education participation rate in Canada.

While the budget does not indicate how institutions are expected to gather the additional revenue to support and renew themselves by attracting new students and staff, the Prentice government has made it clear enough that it wants to do less of the funding but more of the meddling.

Barret Weber

Barret Weber is the Director of Research with the Alberta Federation of Labour and a former research manager with Parkland Institute. He completed his PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta.

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