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Government takeover of post-secondary education

Upheaval at UAlberta

Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government implemented a multi-pronged strategy to demolish the vestiges of university autonomy and self-governance and to assert direct political control over post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs). This takeover stems from the UCP leaders’ ideological antipathy toward all public goods and their desire to recommodify education, health care and parks, while stripping government services. This strategy unfolded in five overlapping initiatives outlined below.

The Strategy

  • The government first sought a veneer of expert legitimation for its neoliberal project in the form of the so-called Blue Ribbon panel of hand-picked fellow ideologues charged with reviewing the province’s finances. Unsurprisingly, the MacKinnon report prescribed deep cuts to public spending. For the PSE sector, the authors recommended reducing public funding to a level comparable to Ontario or B.C. (recommendation 8, pp. 39-43), which would mean a reduction of operating grants by 10 to 18 per cent below their current level, and endorsed the view that government should direct the priorities of PSEIs based on its expectations about future labour market demands and economic growth sectors (42).
  • It used its budgetary power to cut operating grants to PSEIs and stated its intention to make substantial portions of the remaining grants subject to performance criteria determined by the government. The 2019-2020 Annual Report of the Ministry of Advanced Education referred to the MacKinnon report’s recommendations in announcing its decision that “[b]etween 2018-19 and 2022-23, the primary provincial operating grant for Alberta’s publicly funded post-secondary institutions will be reduced by approximately 20 percent,” and its expectation that universities will make up the lost revenue by “entrepreneurial and commercial ventures” and by raising tuition fees (25).
  • The government further announced a comprehensive review of the PSE sector, “Alberta 2030: Transforming Post-Secondary Education,” and hired the consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, to undertake the research and consultations. In its terms of reference for this consultancy, the government emphasized the goals of making the PSE system one that is “open for business and keeps pace with changing industry needs, with talent and a strong economy that is competitive on the world stage. Education and skill development feeds Alberta’s talent pipeline of entrepreneurs, educators, tradespeople, highly qualified personnel, innovators, job creators and community leaders” (5).
  • The government is using discretionary spending from multiple ministries to fund selected programs or projects within PSEIs to kick-start a P3 model of university-private sector research.  While cutting $216 million from UAlberta’s operating grants from 2019 to 2023, the government announced in October 2020 targeted funding of $6.3 million for research in artificial intelligence, health science, seniors care and advanced laser technology. In this way, the government pits university administrators and researchers across the province against one another in a competition for such one-time grants and neutralizes them as public critics of government PSE policy.
  • The UCP government stacked the boards of governors of the PSEIs with appointees who are close to the governing party ideologically and who can be counted on to impose government directives in the face of student, faculty and staff resistance. There were 114 “general public” or “additional” members appointed to the 21 public PSEI boards by orders-in-council from May 2019 to September 2020. These appointees constitute 66 per cent of the total number (173) of general public members of the boards. Forthcoming research from our group, supported by the Corporate Mapping Project, will document this political takeover of PSE at the provincial level.

University of Alberta

As the university with the largest academic staff association and student body in the province, and thus an important battle ground for the government’s privatization agenda, UAlberta has received “special treatment.” The university’s defence of academic freedom has raised the hackles of Alberta’s conservatives in the past, as we saw when the university senate had the audacity to award an honorary doctorate to David Suzuki in 2018. While all PSEIs are taking heavy hits, UAlberta has been targeted for the largest budget cuts to date (approximately one-third of our budget over three years) and for a complete turnover in managerial control.

All of the New Democratic Party government’s public appointees to UAlberta’s board of governors have now been replaced by UCP appointees, including board chair Michael Phair, who was replaced by Kathryn Chisholm. The UCP replaced six of these individuals in August 2019, well before their terms were set to expire. In total, 14 board members have been installed by the Kenney cabinet, although two subsequently resigned to take up UCP government appointments. The 12 current UCP appointees include an extra two members beyond the normal 10 public members and constitute a voting majority on the board, overwhelming the eight representatives of students, staff, faculty and alumni.

Board chair Kathryn Chisholm has acted as legal counsel for a long list of corporations in the oil, gas, pipeline and utilities sectors, and is currently a senior vice-president of Capital Power. At the Sept. 28, 2020 meeting of the General Faculties Council (GFC), Chisholm reminded the assembled representatives that the board of governors makes budget decisions for the university, and that the GFC has, under the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA), only an advisory role. She urged GFC representatives to “accept the inevitability of the cuts” and warned them not to “filibuster,” but to get on with making their recommendations to the board. Notwithstanding the implications of cutting $216 million from the university’s budget, she opined that it should be possible to do so without “irreparably damaging” the institution, and while retaining its top five ranking (in Canada).

In response to protests from faculty members about the cuts driving restructuring at UAlberta, Chisholm tweeted on Nov. 20, 2020: "I don’t think the UofA can get a bye [sic] on cuts to its CAG [Campus Alberta Grant] in an environment in which funding is also being cut to healthcare, K-12, policing and AISH, however we should push them hard to free us to raise alternate revenues and decrease our reliance on Gov’t funding.” She suggested that by demanding a restoration of funding, the PSE sector would be guilty of taking money away from the sick, children needing elementary education, citizens needing police protection and disabled citizens needing income support. This framing intentionally evades the question of whether any of these cuts are necessary. Further, the statement validated the UCP government’s narrative that private sources of funding for universities are available and that PSE should not be viewed as a universally accessible public good. Thus, the chair of the university’s board of governors demonstrated her agreement with the government’s direction. Students should take note that the MacKinnon report recommended “lifting the current freeze on tuition fees” (42), which may be what the board chair is referring to when she calls for the university to be “freed” to raise “alternate revenues.”

It should be noted that the board effectively represents the UCP government as the employer of the non-academic and academic staff at the university. In November, the board-appointed negotiators brought forward demands for salary cuts and wage freezes over a four-year contract period, along with other measures that will result in long-term wage suppression.

Two men who act as advisors to Jason Kenney have been appointed to UAlberta’s board – one as a public member and one as an external member. The first was Larry Kaumeyer, a member of the Alberta Prosperity Fund, a third-party advertiser set up in November 2015 to support the right-wing parties determined to defeat the NDP government. From December 2019 to August 2020, he acted as a “strategic advisor” to Premier Jason Kenney and was then appointed the premier’s principal secretary. Kaumeyer resigned from the board after only three months, in November 2019. However, an external (non-voting) member of the board’s Reputation and Public Affairs Committee (appointed by the board on the recommendation of its governance committee), Hal Danchilla, is also a self-described “trusted advisor and campaign strategist for Jason Kenney."

Also close to the government’s strategy for the PSE sector is board appointee Dr. Janice MacKinnon, who led the panel whose recommendations are being used by the government to justify cutting one-third of UAlberta’s budget.

Another UCP appointee, James Rajotte, is a former member of Parliament for the Conservative Party of Canada for two Edmonton ridings (2000-2008). In his post-MP life, he sat on the board of directors of the Alberta Enterprise Group, a corporate lobby group, where he rubbed shoulders with oil industry and banking CEOs. In May 2020, Premier Kenney appointed Rajotte as Alberta’s senior representative to the United States. Rajotte resigned from our board on April 30, 2020.

Other public board members with known connections to the UCP or the PCs are: Tom Ross, an employer-side labour lawyer at McLennan Ross LLP, who co-founded the Ethical Oil Institute with Ezra Levant; Daniel Eggert, executive with Melcor Developments; and Paul Whittaker, a former deputy minister in PC governments from 2008-2014.

External members of board committees with connections to the PCs and/or the UCP include: James Barry, insurance company executive; Jonathan Chia, accountant and executive with several firms; Shenaz Jeraj, financial administrator for various firms; Robert Parks, consultation manager; and lawyer Robert Teskey, whose firm, Field Law, lists the University of Alberta as a “major client.” All these individuals, along with Chisholm, Kaumeyer, and Rajotte, have made contributions to the PC and/or UC parties.

With the deck stacked against them, faculty, students, and staff at the university have been organizing as best they can to influence the direction of a restructuring process driven by the massive budget cuts. (For details, read the Arts Squared blog.)  These restructuring struggles are not unique to UAlberta. Deep funding reductions to the PSEIs are creating upheaval across the sector, especially in the form of the layoffs of thousands of highly qualified non-academic staff who provide a wide range of services to researchers, professors and students. Programs may be closed and more radical changes may be in the works. We don’t know the consequences of rapidly rising tuition fees for future enrolments. We do know that, using the power of the purse and the provisions of the Post-Secondary Learning Act, the UCP government has asserted an unprecedented degree of direct political control over PSEIs in Alberta. And we know that this control is part of a larger strategy to impose the UCP’s vision of the priorities of post-secondary education, currently being developed through the Alberta 2030 review.

-co-authors: Michael Lang, a doctoral candidate in the sociology program at the University of Victoria and a researcher with the Corporate Mapping Project, and Mark Shakespear is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and a researcher with the Corporate Mapping Project.

Laurie Adkin

Laurie Adkin is a political economist and professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Her main areas of research and teaching are political ecology, the populist radical right in Europe, and Alberta politics. Since 2002, she has studied the formation of climate change policy in Alberta and Canada. She is the author of Politics of Sustainable Development: Citizens, Unions, and the Corporations (1998), and editor and co-author of Environmental Conflict and Democracy in Canada (2009), and First World Petro-Politics: The Political Ecology and Governance of Alberta (2016). Her recent work has focused on the political ecology of knowledge production in Alberta’s universities and on innovation policy and discourse as responses to the global climate crisis.

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