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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2013

Impact of Alberta post-secondary cuts felt across the province

Students & academic staff from Mount Royal University rallied outside Alison Redford’s constituency office earlier this year to protest post-secondary cuts introduced in the province’s spring budget. [Ted Rhodes/Calgary Herald]
Students & academic staff from Mount Royal University rallied outside Alison Redford’s constituency office earlier this year to protest post-secondary cuts introduced in the province’s spring budget. [Ted Rhodes/Calgary Herald]
University and college staff and students in Alberta returned to classes this month under a cloud of cutbacks and growing concern about the province’s plans for the sector.

The Progressive Conservative government of Alison Redford sent shockwaves through campuses last March by drastically cutting $147 million from university and college budgets after earlier committing to a 2 per cent increase. The result has been a growing list of institutions in recent weeks announcing staff reductions, enrolment cuts and program eliminations.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Rob Sutherland, president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations. “Universities had budgeted on the basis of a 2 per cent increase in funding, but instead are facing cuts of close to 9 per cent of what was promised. This is an unprecedented backward step for post-secondary education in Alberta.”

At the University of Alberta, the arts faculty announced in August that 20 programs will be cut and the science faculty will admit 600 fewer students over the next two years. The University of Calgary earlier this year also said it would be accepting 200 fewer students in the faculty of arts, along with 30 fewer nursing students and 15 fewer medical students. Mount Royal University is scrapping eight programs and looking to eliminate 600 student spaces.

“Courses seem to be fuller than they have been in the past at this time,” Gerry Cross, president of the Mount Royal University Faculty Association, told the Calgary Herald. “It will be more difficult for students to get the courses they want and they might have to wait a semester or two. That is one of the immediate impacts students will see.”

The province’s colleges and institutes are also struggling with the fallout from the budget cuts. Lakeland College in Vermillion is cancelling six programs, and Edmonton-based Norquest College is shaving student enrolment by 500 and cutting staff at three satellite campuses across the province.

“To date the impact of the cuts have been seen in the classrooms, shops and labs, resulting in larger class sizes, no classes, program cuts, higher user fees and fewer instructors,” said Doug Short, president of the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association. “Great societies invest a significant amount of their resources in education — of fundamental importance to the knowledge economy.”

In addition to the funding cuts, the government also unveiled controversial plans to have a greater say over the operations and priorities of universities and colleges. Shortly after the March budget, Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk issued nearly identical “letters of expectation” to each of the province’s 26 public post-secondary institutions mandating them to focus research on commercial outcomes, to develop new accountability measures and to find “efficiencies” and cost savings, including freezing salaries.

The letters also required institutions to sign on to the government’s vision of Campus Alberta, a centralized plan the Minister said would rationalize programs across the province’s institutions by eliminating program duplication, promoting more transfer opportunities for students and encouraging stronger links with employers.

After a storm of protest erupted over the letters, Lukaszuk initially seemed to back down from earlier statements that the letters were “non-negotiable,” saying instead the mandates were only drafts intended to begin more formal discussions in the fall.

But despite the upcoming consultation process many worry the letters signal the government’s wish to have a more direct role in setting academic and research priorities by forcing institutions to follow the Ministry’s pre-determined outcomes.

“No one questions the need to find efficiencies and seize opportunities for collaboration within the post-secondary education system,” CAFA’s Sutherland says. “But the model of Campus Alberta that the government is proposing, with the focus on its own agenda, is a full-on attack on the independence and integrity of our institutions.”

In response to critics, Lukaszuk said his intention isn’t to “micromanage” universities and colleges. Nevertheless, in a highly unusual move, he last month ordered a team of outside consultants to review the University of Alberta’s proposed three-year budget, including its $70-million deficit, to ensure campus finances are on a “sustainable financial footing.”

Academics are also less than happy about what they describe as the government’s narrow research focus outlined in the letters of expectation that call on institutions to meet industry needs.

“Research in our universities is not, and should not be, solely about producing immediate benefit to the economy,” Sutherland warns. “The emphasis the government places on commercialization and applied research in a few areas at the expense of basic research is simply misguided.”