In his response to the UCP government’s February 24, 2022 budget, President Bill Flanagan of the University of Alberta characterized its allocations for post-secondary education positively, as a “turning point for the University of Alberta.” In his statement, Flanagan highlights a UCP initiative called “Alberta at Work,” which promises to invest $171 million over three years to increase enrolment in programs selected by the government, and asserts that the U of A will move quickly to take advantage of this new funding program (along with 21 other post-secondary education institutions, or PSEIs).
In the third paragraph of his statement was the information that the U of A’s Campus Alberta Grant (CAG) had been cut by a further $52 million, but this point was immediately followed by the reassurance that the university would have no difficulty balancing its budget in 2022-23. In an interview with a local news outlet, the president claimed that “the hard decisions we are making now will ultimately set the university up to better serve Albertans and better prepare the next generation of leaders.”
President Flanagan’s initial statement did not mention that the UCP’s cuts to the university’s grant now amount to $222 million, or a 33% cut to the university’s Campus Alberta Grant since 2019-2020. Instead, he characterized the UCP’s post-secondary strategy as “an investment in Albertans and Alberta’s economic future—as well as an investment in the renewal and growth of the province’s post-secondary institutions.” In reality, it is nothing of the kind.
The presidents of Lethbridge College and University of Lethbridge—other PSEIs that received cuts to their operating grants—expressed “disappointment” in the reductions, along with their hopes of securing some of the new, targeted enrolment funding. Lethbridge College was being dealt a 5.7% reduction—its “fourth straight substantial cut”—while ULethbridge was allotted a further cut of 5.1% (amounting to a 21% cut to its operating grant since 2019-20).
The president of the University of Calgary, Ed McCauley, also put a positive spin on the UCP government’s shrinkage of public funding for PSE, by highlighting the new money being made available to support enrolments in programs selected by the government. “These funds will help UCalgary produce talent in high-demand employment sectors and drive the economy,” he told a local news outlet. UCalgary was also the beneficiary of substantial capital funding in the 2022-2025 Fiscal Plan, in the form of $59 million to expand its veterinary school. McCauley did observe, however, that universities have a mission beyond training workers for existing labour markets. “Great societies are anchored by great research universities,” he was quoted as saying. “They are engines for everything from employment to art to community to discovery. An investment in higher education is an investment in our future.”
None of these PSEI executives have spoken to the bigger picture of what the UCP government is doing to the higher education sector. For a start, from 2018-19 to 2022-23 the operating support budget for the province’s PSEIs has fallen from $2.43 billion to $1.97 billion, or by 18.8% (see below).
The successive budget cuts aim to reduce the share of public funding of PSEIs from between 55%-58% in 2018-19 to 45% by 2023. These institutions have been told to fill the widening funding gap by cutting costs, increasing tuition fees, and finding other sources of revenue.
However, the reduction of the Ministry of Advanced Education’s expenditure in support of PSEIs has not taken the form of equal (percentage) cuts for all the 22 institutions. The University of Alberta was dealt the largest share of this budget reduction. As a result, it has undertaken the most extreme rationalization, among the PSEIs, of its administrative services, laying off more than 1,000 employees, ending academic teaching contracts, massively increasing the workloads of the remaining administrative staff, and leaving some academic programs to languish due to faculty attrition. Across the sector, because of layoffs and deteriorating working conditions, many highly qualified professionals have left Alberta. Small communities in which PSEIs provided good jobs have felt the loss of employment opportunities and local income. And the province’s young people now face greater financial barriers to higher education.
All this has been unfolding while the UCP government continues to claim that a well-educated population is one of the pillars of the “Alberta Advantage,” while the world is in the throes of a historically unprecedented transformation of its energy systems and economies, and while the province struggles with high levels of unemployment. Never have Alberta’s young people needed access to post-secondary education more than they do today.
But, you might ask, doesn’t the UCP government say that its “Alberta at Work” initiative will increase enrolment in the PSE sector? The UCP’s Fiscal Plan 2022-25 promises that investments totalling $171 million over three years will create 7,000 new places in areas where there are deemed to be “skills shortages,” such as “high technology (computer science, information technology and data modelling), finance and fintech, energy (engineering, etc.), health and aviation” (34). Then there is $30 million for apprenticeship programs, $5 million for “training opportunities for Indigenous Peoples,” $6 million for “enhancements to work-integrated learning programs,” and $8 million for expanding micro-credential course offerings. The government will invest a full $30 million over three years to train commercial truck drivers for Alberta employers.
These programs add up to $250 million over three years. By comparison, the UCP has taken almost half a billion dollars out of the provincial operating grant to PSEIs since 2018-19 (see previous graph), forcing these institutions to raise their tuition fees. Revenue from PSI tuition fees is predicted to increase by 33% by 2024-25 (with 2020-21 as the base year) as shown below.
Income support for students is promised in the form of $15 million in bursaries for low-income Albertans who enrol in government-approved “high demand programs,” in addition to the existing scholarships and awards programs. The 2022-23 Government Estimates show Student Aid operating expense declining from $124.6 million in 2020-21 to $111.5 million in 2022-23 (page 25). Student loans, on the other hand, are expected to nearly double (over 2020-21) to $980 million in 2022-23.
There is no detailed breakdown of how/where 7,000 new post-secondary seats will be created. The Students Union at the University of Alberta estimates, for example, that the $30 million for apprenticeship programs will benefit only 300 students. But it is clear that the UCP government has decided what kinds of education young Albertans will be supported to achieve. In fact, the government no longer uses the term “higher education.” Instead, it refers to “Alberta’s adult learning system,” whose function is to “drive job creation, innovation, and the development of skilled and adaptive workers who contribute to the growth and prosperity of the Alberta economy” (Fiscal Plan 2022-25, page 130).
With one hand, the UCP removes operating funding to the PSEIs over which they have some autonomy (though even that is shrinking with the imposition of performance metrics by the government). With the other hand, it “adds back” smaller amounts of funding in a piecemeal fashion to support programs of its own choosing.
The government’s micro-management of what the faculties of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutes teach or research subverts the role of scholars and researchers in determining how curricula and programs should develop. Targeted program funding and performance-based funding for operating grants also increasingly determine which programs will be available to students. Notably, the UCP’s disproportionate cuts to the operating grants of the leading research universities, which have traditionally been the homes of strong faculties of arts and sciences, is accompanied by the selective (re)funding for programs in STEM fields and for vocational programs. Instead of making all programs more accessible to students, and enabling them to choose their own educational paths, the UCP government is trying to channel enrolment according to its own beliefs about the kinds of knowledge needed by “the economy.”
Effectively, this government takes a very dim view of “higher education,” and believes that the future labour market will have unlimited demand for a relatively narrow range of technical skills. Does this set of prejudices and assumptions serve the interests of Alberta’s young people? Does the UCP cabinet have better knowledge of the evolving directions of research across the many disciplines of post-secondary education than the faculty who are trained in these fields? Does it have a well-informed reading of future economic development trends and social needs? Do the party’s leaders and key advisors respect the choices of young Albertans about what subjects they want to study or, like domineering parents, are they trying to make these decisions for them? And do they understand that “great universities” are great because their faculty are supported to pursue knowledge of all kinds and to produce knowledge in the public interest?
In the wake of the February 2022 budget, what the PSEI executives did not say is that, through the imposition of performance-based funding and massive cuts to the operating budgets of the PSEIs—most of all, the University of Alberta—the UCP is both privatizing higher education and deciding, without meaningful consultation with key stakeholders and citizens, which kinds of knowledge are deserving of public support. This is an ideologically driven assault on academic freedom. Moreover, by raising the financial barriers to higher education, downloading costs to students in the form of a growing debt burden, and reducing the funding available to the core faculties of the universities, the UCP’s agenda denies our young people opportunities they need and deserve to develop their full potential and to participate in building the Alberta of the future.
The PSEI executives have not advocated publicly for alternatives that—from the perspectives of students, faculty, and staff—are urgently needed. Those include, for example, substantial reinvestment in higher education to meet actual demand for this public good. We don’t have a demand problem; we have a supply problem caused by neoliberal austerity policies. The heavy reliance of universities on contract academic staff to meet the existing and future demand for education must end. These positions must be converted to tenure-track jobs with balanced responsibilities for teaching and research.
Highly skilled employees with deep institutional knowledge are invaluable to the efficient functioning of services and to the relationships that make these institutions good places to work. The damage inflicted upon these relationships by layoffs and administrative restructuring at the University of Alberta is deep, and will take years to repair, requiring a meaningful, inclusive deliberation about faculty and student needs and reasonable workloads for support staff.
Tuition fees should be progressively reduced, to permit all Albertans to benefit fully and equally from higher education. And the governance framework for post-secondary education must be democratized to allow students, staff, and faculty a greater voice in how their institutions are managed and to safeguard the autonomy of PSEIs vis-à-vis governments like the UCP that seek to impose private- sector- driven agendas on public education. These alternative directions for PSE reform are unfolded in greater detail in a forthcoming Parkland report on the governance of post-secondary education in Alberta.