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Post-secondary education not premier’s priority

In late February, Premier Jim Prentice betrayed his lack of vision for post-secondary education in the province, saying: “There are always carrots and sticks.”

But what’s the objective? The objective is to get the cost of public services in our province down to something that reflects national averages. In other words, our province’s leader suggests following the other provinces, regardless of Alberta’s unique needs. This closely resembles the talking points the PC government has used in recent weeks and months — that is, that government spending is “out of control.”

For someone like myself who has worked within the system for years, these statements reveal just how out of touch the PC government has become. The current leadership seems oblivious to the damage done to Alberta’s post-secondary institutions during the last round of cuts under Alison Redford.

Seemingly unfazed, all indications are that Prentice intends to bring in more reckless cuts.

In terms of the post-secondary sector, the reality — no surprise ­— is something quite different than the outdated “out of control spending” mantra would suggest.

Let’s look briefly at the state of Alberta’s post-secondary education and why Prentice’s lack of vision threatens to make an already broken system even worse.

The first trial balloon Prentice issued is to lift the tuition cap (the limit on how much institutions can increase tuition) to offset what is really systemic government underfunding.

The problems with this idea are many, not least of which is that it isn’t new and it isn’t just a trial balloon. It has been used for decades. The outcome? Undergraduate tuition fees have increased by 267 per cent in Alberta since 1992 (the national average for provinces is 179 per cent during this time).

This is the second highest percentage increase in the country. Alberta’s tuition fees as a portion of total operational revenue at post-secondary institutions has increased from just over 10 per cent in 1982 to 30 per cent in 2012.

Alberta already has the second highest undergraduate tuition fees in Canada, as federal and provincial combined government funding for the sector has fallen from 80 per cent in 1981 to just over 60 per cent in 2012.

A new round of tuition hikes should not be considered as an option to alleviating the sector’s woes if we remain committed to the goals of keeping students out of excessive paid employment, avoiding the pitfalls of high student debt loads, and making post-secondary education accessible. Why?

High tuition fees have a serious negative impact on student success because they force students into the labour market to fund their educations. Working 20 hours per week or more has a negative effect on students’ academic performance and on the likelihood that they will finish their degrees. Yet, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, since the 1990s the number of full-time students working over 35 hours per week has doubled. Furthermore, most students increase the amount they work toward the end of their degrees, further distracting them from their studies as they advance in their programs.

On top of this, Alberta has one of the highest full-time student to full-time faculty ratios in Canada.

Contrary to popular mythology, statistics show that enrolments across the province and across the country are flat or in decline, making access to post-secondary education a serious problem in need of remedy.

Alberta has among the lowest post-secondary participation rates in the country by youth (18-24 year olds). Less than 30 per cent of Albertans have post-secondary experience at all, which is approximately the same as the Canadian average. Higher tuition fees only exacerbate this “access gap.”

These basic facts show that Alberta needs leadership to restore funding to post-secondary education. Students have been picking up the slack for years of underfunding, with negative consequences. It’s time for the PCs to make post-secondary education a priority by focusing on improving student success, access and student-to-faculty ratios. Given what we already know about the sector, raising tuition fees should be off the agenda.

Barret Weber

Barret Weber is 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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