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Roadmap or Roadkill, A Critical Look at the Government’s Strategy for Post-Secondary Education in Alberta

On April 29, 2021 the Alberta government released "Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs," a document outlining a 10-year strategy for transforming the province’s post-secondary education system. This report critically argues Alberta 2030 is ill-advised and the planned changes, if implemented, will have a radical and perhaps even dangerous impact on Alberta’s post-secondary system.

Alberta 2030’s strategy for post-secondary (PS) builds on the 2019 MacKinnon Report on Alberta’s finances. Contrary to the MacKinnon Report, our analysis shows Alberta’s expenditures are not hugely out of line with the three comparator provinces: Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. The main obstacle to addressing Alberta’s fiscal problems, and those of the post-secondary system specifically, is a lack of revenue to pay for public services. Despite this, the MacKinnon Report continues to be used as financial justification for a host of questionable proposals, including those found in Alberta 2030, designed to transform Alberta’s post-secondary system.

Those specific proposals are purported to arise out of another report, one commissioned from McKinsey & Company. The government (i.e. taxpayers) paid $3.7 million to McKinsey & Company for a report into post-secondary education (PSE) which presumably provided the foundation for the Alberta 2030 plan. The government has not released the McKinsey report; a freedom of information request from Parkland in April 2021 to obtain the report has not been granted at the time of writing.

A careful parsing of Alberta 2030’s six goals reveals its potentially harmful path:
• “Improving access and the student experience” in reality means downloading the direct and indirect costs of education onto students and their families, while failing to provide adequate levels of grants and loans in compensation; limiting access to seats to those who can best afford post-secondary; and decreasing the number and quality of educational programs through forced budget cuts and restructuring. Alberta 2030 ignores data projecting the entry into the PSE system of an additional 40,000 full-time learner equivalents (FLEs) between 2020 and 2028. These numbers may even increase, as Alberta’s PSE participation rate – the lowest in the country – increases as young Albertans, males in particular, seek jobs outside the energy sector. Estimates show that an additional 90,000 PSE spaces would be needed by 2025 to bring Alberta up to the national average of PSE participation rates.
• “Develop skills for jobs” means training graduates to meet the immediate needs of employers who will be given greater control over what skills are taught for an economy based on just-in-time labour, and which are geared primarily to resource-based extraction. Alberta 2030’s narrow focus on skills training is to the detriment of the broader education students need to succeed in the emerging Alberta economy.
• “Support commercialization and innovation” means government support will be strongly directed towards post-secondary programs that are marketable and valued by the business community; other courses or programs may be reduced or eliminated altogether, based on narrow metrics; scholars working in non-commercializable areas will find their careers and interests blocked; and students wishing to explore their interests in these areas will need to move to out-of-province post-secondary institutions.
• “Strengthen internationalization” means recruiting high-paying international students to pick up the costs of reduced government funding, while creating pressure to access PSE for Alberta and Canadian students. This risks reputational damage to post-secondary institutions, even as the latter’s financial circumstances are rendered more precarious.
• “Improve sustainability and affordability” means continuing penury for post-secondary institutions with an eye to privatizing more and more operations through partnerships with business and commercialization; ultimately making post-secondary institutions no longer public institutions but subsidiaries of the business community. Alberta 2030 follows on the heels of severe cuts to support staff and faculty since 2019. The most recent Alberta budget includes total operating expenses funded by the government decreasing from $2.68 billion in 2019-20 to an estimated $2.36 billion in 2021-22 (nominal dollars), an 11.8 per cent drop with a further drop to about $2.25 billion in the following two fiscal years (or a 16 per cent slide since 2019-20). These cuts will severely impact the functioning of the PS system and negatively impact student education and experience in the years to come.
• “Strengthen system governance” means centralizing power in the hands of the minister of Advanced Education, a select group of party and government insiders, and corporate executives. It means removing meaningful oversight from students, staff and faculty, the community, and Albertans at large. It means adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to a system already over-burdened with administration, and placing research and teaching outside the long-term control and interests of Alberta and its citizens.

The roadmap laid out for the post-secondary system by Alberta 2030 is ill-advised, radical and perhaps even dangerous. Implementing this narrow vision will come at a real cost to students, their families and communities, and to the long-term interests of Alberta’s economy and society. It ill-prepares Alberta and students for the future economy as the province transitions out of oil dependency. There are, however, ways it could be improved. These include:

Reinvestment in Public Funding
We recommend a massive reinvestment in post-secondary funding, with commensurate increases based on enrolment and inflation in the years to come. For decades, Alberta’s post-secondary funding has been tied to the economy’s boom-bust cycle. It has followed the short-term political whims of government or the equally limited horizons of private-sector job needs. Despite being one of Canada’s richest provinces, Alberta's successive governments have regularly held PS funding at an average – or even less generous – level. Successive provincial governments have long touted “the Alberta Advantage.” We ask, why does this not also extend to education? Post-secondary education cannot function as a just-in-time delivery model as Alberta 2030 envisions. To meet the long-term interests of students – and even those of industry and the broader economy – funding must be predictable, reliable, ongoing and fulsome.

Reinvestment in funding must be forward-looking. It must take into consideration Alberta’s projected demographic and economic changes in both the number and participation rate of PSE-age students, noted earlier. Reinvestment in funding must also include a plan for the retention and recruitment of staff and faculty, who have experienced severe job losses through recent layoffs, retirements and moves elsewhere. Research and teaching are long-term and expensive investments, and are factors in a student’s academic career plans.

A New Model of Democratic and Collegial Governance
We recommend a new model of PS governance that is more democratic and collegial. Specifically, we recommend strengthening the role of faculty, staff and students on General Faculties Councils (GFCs) in decision-making, including budgeting, and the creation of similar GFCs at all other post-secondary institutions. We further recommend restrictions on corporate influence and funding at post-secondary institutions, and the strengthening of broad-based community connections between institutions, faculty and staff. For too long, Alberta’s PS system has been narrowly controlled by the government and corporate interests. A new governance structure has the potential for reinvigorating PS institutions as sites of democratic participation in the current and long-term interests of all Albertans.

An “Alberta Advantage” Model for Post-Secondary Education
We recommend Alberta introduce free tuition for up to the first two years of full-time undergraduate education – what would amount to a “New Alberta Advantage.” We further recommend an improved system of grants and loans to meet the additional financial needs of students. Our free tuition recommendation is based on Europe’s post-secondary educational system, which is largely publicly funded and tuition-free. There remain entry requirements, but rather than being paid at the front end through tuitions, the system is funded through tax dollars afterwards (as higher education is positively correlated with higher incomes). In effect, European students pay forward the benefits they receive from post-secondary education. Free tuition could act as a new Alberta Advantage as the province adapts to the new economy. Free tuition would attract students into the post-secondary system, especially Indigenous and other historically marginalized students. It would also retain students who might otherwise seek educational opportunities outside Alberta, attract others who have traditionally avoided attending post-secondary, and might also attract students from other provinces. Free tuition would be a bold and genuinely transformative program for Alberta – and perhaps for Canada.

Free tuition is not enough, however. Student’s financial needs go beyond tuition and often pose an impediment to entry into PS. While tuition is an important expense for students, it is often the opportunity costs of education that comprise the largest expenditure in attending PSE. The government should reinvest the $200 million annually raised from the elimination of the student tax credit that placed an undue burden on students, particularly those first-generation students from low-income households. Our earlier recommendation for substantial financial reinvestment to meet the projected increase in students attending post secondary must also be viewed as a signal to young Albertans, especially in the 18-24-year-old age group, that they have a meaningful future in Alberta and would help retain and attract students to Alberta’s post-secondary system.

Increased Government Transparency and Accountability
We recommend the immediate release of the McKinsey report and related documents pertaining to Alberta 2030. The PSE system in Alberta is broad and complex, encompassing many stakeholders. It is only with relevant, current and accurate data, as well as a clear vision of the system, that appropriate policy can be made. The Alberta 2030 report does not score well on either of these measures. It is vague and poorly written. Additionally, much of Alberta 2030 was written behind closed doors. The evidence underlying its proposals is not clear. Of particular concern, the government had not yet released the McKinsey report, paid for by taxpayers. The Alberta public owns the report; indeed, it should have access to the results of every contract the government signs.

All Albertans have a stake in the financing and governance of the province’s post-secondary system. It is critical all stakeholders be aware of how decisions have been made on their behalf in order for students, their parents, faculty and staff and the community at large to hold governments accountable. Only in this way can the “Alberta Advantage” for PSE be realized.

*Please join us for a free online public forum, Setting the Right Direction for Post-Secondary Education, with the report authors on Oct. 21, 7 p.m. Register: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/setting-the-right-direction-for-post-secondary-education-tickets-183599339567

Richard Mueller

Richard E. Mueller is a professor in the Department of Economics and academic director of the Lethbridge branch of the Prairie Regional Research Data Centre. Mueller holds a BA(Honours) and an MA from the University of Calgary, and a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. He began his career at the University of Maine before joining the University of Lethbridge in 2000. He was seconded to Statistics Canada from 2009 through 2011 and was chair of the Department of Economics between 2014 and 2018. Mueller has a wide range of interests related to education and labour market policy and has taught and given presentations in Europe, Asia, the U.S., Australia, the Middle East and Latin America. His research has been published in various economics, Canadian Studies and higher education journals, several edited volumes and reports, and highlighted by a number of media outlets.

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Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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