Since coming to power in 2019, Alberta’s UCP government has paid special attention to advanced education in the province. This “special attention” has included cutting close to $500 million in operating funding from the province’s universities, colleges, and polytechnics, as well as launching a new strategic plan for the sector that focuses funding and programs much more closely than ever before on vocational training and responding to market needs.
These moves have had a serious knock-on effect on the institutions’ ability to support curiosity-based research and offer and properly fund liberal education programs in the humanities and social sciences. In essence, the government has taken it upon itself to determine which programs are worthy of funding, grants, and student supports, and which ones are not.
At the end of the legislative session, via an Order in Council, the government made one more important policy change in the area of post-secondary funding.
First, some context: Alberta is the only jurisdiction in Canada that provides public funding to private post-secondary entities. These are called Independent Academic Institutions (IAIs) in the Post-Secondary Learning Act. IAIs operate under their own legislation, have different accountability standards than public institutions, are not required to have a government-approved mandate, and are responsible for their own governance and board appointments.
For the last number of years, there have been five Independent Academic Institutions in Alberta: Ambrose University, Burman University, Concordia University of Edmonton, The King’s University, and St. Mary’s University. All of these institutions are private, self-governing and, most importantly, not-for-profit.
On March 30, the UCP government added a sixth IAI to this list: MaKami College Inc. What makes MaKami different from the other IAIs is that it is a private, for-profit business. For the first time anywhere in Canada, the UCP has made it possible for a private for-profit educational institution to receive public dollars.
MaKami College Inc. has been in existence since 2001. It was originally a massage therapist school, but has since grown to include a number of programs, such as Health Care Aide, Business Administrative Assistant, Medical Office Assistant, Master Instructor, and Basic Security Training. It has two locations in Calgary and one in Edmonton.
Many of the vocational programs offered at MaKami duplicate programs being offered by public institutions in Alberta. For example, the Health Care Aide program is similar to the one being offered at Norquest College, and the Master Instructor program is similar to the one offered at NAIT. This duplication raises the important question of why the provincial government would choose to fund a for-profit business to provide programs that are already funded through public institutions.
If it’s the case that schools like NAIT/SAIT and Norquest cannot meet the current demand for seats in these programs, then it seems a better solution would be to restore the recent funding cuts and enable the public schools to expand their programs, rather than find ways to funnel already scarce post-secondary education funds to a for-profit corporation.
This is especially relevant given the apparent disparity in the amount of tuition being charged for what seems to be very similar programs. The Health Care Aide program, which teaches the Government of Alberta Provincial Curriculum, costs $7,200 at Red Deer Polytechnic and $7,981 at Norquest. At MaKami College Inc., however, that same program costs $12,150. Likewise, a Medical Office Assistant Diploma program that costs $5,078 at Norquest costs more than twice as much, $12,950, at MaKami. And a Master Instructor program that costs $1,455 at NAIT costs $15,000 at MaKami — more than ten times as much.
While different programs will always include differing amounts of instructional time, books and materials, and various perks, it is difficult to fathom what kinds of extras would warrant tuition costs anywhere from twice to ten times higher.
It is also entirely possible that once MaKami starts receiving public funds, the costs of those programs will come down a bit. But that is exactly one of the key areas of concern with this whole move by the UCP. Those funds will constitute a clear subsidy to the profit margin of a private business. A subsidy that, given the current very limited pool of post-secondary funding available, will come directly at the expense of funding for students in public institutions.
By choosing to make these more expensive programs eligible for government funding, rather than increasing funds for the more affordable programs available at public institutions, the government is also exacerbating the affordability crisis being faced by Alberta students today.
In the end, what the UCP government has done — with no public discussion and no debate in the Alberta legislature — is fundamentally change the nature of the post-secondary landscape in Alberta, as they once again double-down on their ideological belief that private for-profit corporations should be able to use public dollars to generate a profit.
It hurts affordability, it does damage to accessibility, it’s a direct subsidy of private profiteering, and it risks doing irreparable harm to the entire advanced education system in Alberta.
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions to this piece made by a volunteer researcher/writer who has asked to remain anonymous.