Higher-education institutions in Alberta have been handed a road map by the provincial government, but it’s unclear who’s paying for the trip.
The Alberta 2030 (AB2030) plan released April 29 sets out a vision for postsecondary education in the province that focuses on commercial research and students acquiring job skills. It was developed from the $3.7 million review of the province’s postsecondary system by McKinsey and Company that was released in June 2020 and stated a reduction in duplication, stronger relationships between employers and postsecondary institutions, and developing “a highly skilled and competitive workforce” as goals.
AB 2030’s goals are consistent with the review and also envision significant changes to the governance and provincial organization of postsecondary institutions; and gives universities some financial flexibility by decoupling their budgets from the province.
But the sweeping ideas are light on implementation details and come on the heels of more than half a billion dollars in provincial funding cuts: $117 million in 2019-20, $182 million in 20-21, $135 million in 21-22 and a planned $113 million cut in 22-23.
It’s leaving many people wondering how realistic the plan is.
“It’s difficult to see how you can improve on those goals without investing in them,” said Kerry Black, an assistant professor in civil engineering and Canada research chair at the University of Calgary. “There’s a disconnect there, to have launched such an ambitious strategy for postsecondary education, but not match it with funds.”
Alberta’s economy, heavily tied to the fossil fuel industry, has been mired in a downturn even before the global recession due to COVID-19. The AB2030 document’s emphasis on applied job training, encouraging careers in the trades, and commercial research appears to elevate those priorities over education and academic research—particularly considering that Alberta’s largest research university has been a disproportionate target of cuts.
In the February provincial budget, the University of Alberta’s funding was reduced by more than $60 million, bringing the school’s total cuts over the past two years to more than $170 million. This represents nearly half of the sector’s total cuts at a university attended by a quarter of the province’s postsecondary students. Meanwhile, the University of Calgary’s funding has dropped 18 per cent since 2019, and now receives less operational funding from the province than it did in 2011.
The plan also calls for the “deconsolidation” of the budgets of large research-focused universities from the provincial government’s budget. The move will give those universities more flexibility in raising revenues — although the government said tuition will be capped at seven percent until 2022 and tied to inflation thereafter — and less restrictions in the way they allocate their funds.
Response to the plan has been mixed, with university leadership largely praising the government’s vision, particularly deconsolidation, and faculty associations expressing dismay.
“The deconsolidation is of historic importance to the University of Alberta,” said its president, Bill Flanagan. “Consolidation really drives a lot of bad business decisions for the university.” As an example of how the institution has been constrained, he cited the current restructuring forced by the province’s funding cuts. “We’re actually having to lay off more people because we can’t use our reserve funds to pay severance.”
University of Calgary president Ed McCauley said he supports the goals expressed in the plan but wants to see more specifics. “[T]he devil is in the details,” he said. “The objectives within Alberta 2030 are not in conflict, per se, but they are numerous. Expectations around timing and specifics around government support will determine the realism of the plan.”
Both Dr. McCauley and defended the connections between their institutions and industry as beneficial. “While our role is much broader than serving the needs of industry, the needs of industry and the public interest do not need to be set up to be in conflict,” said Dr. McCauley.
For others, the plan’s details were both unwelcome and unsurprising.
“I’m not really surprised by anything other than the absurdity of speaking in such grandiose terms about the future of postsecondary education while they’re in the process of taking half a billion dollars out of the system,” said Ricardo Acuna, president of the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta.
“Nothing in the plan really surprised me,” said Roberta Lexier, associate professor of humanities at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “It was clear from the beginning of the whole process what the report would look like.”
Those reactions may stem from the approach that Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government has taken in areas like health care and parks during its first two years: cutting funding, privatizing public services, and turning the machinery of government towards the needs of industry. Higher education has not been spared from this pattern.
“It’s been a challenging time for the university,” said Mr. Flanagan. “We know we can be more efficient as a university and provide these services at a significantly reduced cost, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Coming so quickly on the heels of those cuts, the Alberta 2030 plan seemed a bit of a cruel joke to some. In an op-ed published just before the report was released, Dr. Black argued that funding cuts to universities represent shortsightedness and a misunderstanding of how those institutions contribute to their communities. This plan, she said, reflects similar thinking. “You’re definitely seeing a trend in terms of cutting postsecondary education, but then asking universities to deliver pretty big results,” said Dr. Black.
Dr. Lexier went further, saying the government’s approach to the sector was rooted in hostility to academia. “I think there is a broad anti-intellectualism within current conservative circles,” she said.
Mr. Acuna added that combined with the government’s move to performance-based funding, in which a percentage of a university’s funding is tied to metrics developed by the provincial government such as enrolment targets and rates of graduation, and which was postponed last year for at least a year, the plan is going to narrow the scope at universities.
“It’s going to have a detrimental effect as we see the shrinking of programs in the humanities, in education, in fine arts, in social sciences. That will have an impact on staff, and it will have an impact on the breadth and comprehensiveness of our postsecondary institutions,” he said.