Back to school blues

// Courtenay McKay
// Courtenay McKay

University of Alberta faces program suspensions and admission cuts

The final week before classes resume at the University of Alberta is undoubtedly busy at the best of times, but this year returning staff and students face a curveball.

Last week, it was announced the Faculty of Arts would be suspending admission to 21 of its undergraduate programs due to budgetary concerns. It was low-enrollment numbers that landed the programs on the list. Each program had 10 or fewer students enrolled as majors in each of the fall terms between 2005 and 2011.

“What we’ve proposed is to suspend enrollment in these 21 programs so that we can review them,” explains Faculty of Arts vice dean  Heather Zwicker, who notes the long-term effect on the budget would be incremental—but this shows the faculty where to direct the funding it does have.

This does not mean the programs are gone for good just yet, and the suspensions will not affect the 50 students who are already enrolled in the majors—the suspensions will only affect new enrollments, meaning students who have yet to begin their education at the U of A will not have access to them at this time.

“We are committed to seeing students complete these programs,” Zwicker says. “It takes a little bit of fancy footwork in some cases, but we are committed to seeing people get through their degrees, and that includes people who are already slated to begin those programs in September.”

“Our main concern was how these suspensions were going to affect the quality of our education and what it would mean for students in these departments and programs,” says Kelsey Mills, council of department associations coordinator with the Collective Body for Arts Students, who has been consulting with faculty on the issue.

The review process the programs will undergo is likely to result in three rough categories: programs that will continue either because they are deemed to be truly low budget or possess a demographic implication not taken into account by numbers alone; programs that will continue to be offered, but will be altered in some way; and programs that will be recommended for termination.

The programs in question encompass a number from the Bachelor of Arts degree, including Classical Language, Middle Eastern and African Studies, and several other language-based majors; the Printmaking and Computing Science majors from the Bachelor of Design; Music History, BMus School Music, Composition and Theory and World Music concentrations from Bachelor of Music as well as the Technical Theatre Major from the Bachelor of Fine Arts. The renowned Technical Theatre program is a quota program, meaning there’s a capped number of students able to enroll each year—eight in this case—but Zwicker says, despite the intentionally small number, the program is still not filling.

“As we are with all of these programs, the faculty is working very closely with the department and we have also heard from other faculties and other institutions and members of the public and donors, and I actually believe we are going to be able to do something about the technical theatre program,” she adds.

In order to continue offering the programs to students, it may be a matter of streamlining. There are 44 majors in the Bachelor of Arts alone, and program material can be accessed through a variety of avenues, becoming redundant—which could be a contributing factor to declining enrollment, along with lack of faculty in some cases.

“For example, with the language programs that were listed, the faculty’s not saying studying Ukrainian language and literature or studying Russian language and literature is not important, but rather, there’s a potential to combine those into a Slavic studies major, so the courses and the content will still be offered, but what’s on your degree at the end of the day might look a little different,” Mills explains. “I guess it’s just determining what’s more important or what’s more valuable: breadth or depth.”

Of course, there’s the quick assumption that arts-based degrees are not a valuable asset in today’s economy, but both Zwicker and Mills are quick to quash the stereotype.

“I would argue we are in dire need of people who can communicate with others, analyze information and can give an informed opinion, and arts students are trained to do all of these” says Mills, a fifth year economics major with a minor in sociology, who, as an arts student, happens to be working in the oil industry for the summer. “They’re going to graduate with these skills and these skills are transferable amongst diverse industries.”

“These are programs that don’t narrowly train you for a job. They train you for a career; they train you for a life,” Zwicker notes. “We have people who are trained to think really carefully and really creatively about the world that we live in.”

But it’s not just the Faculty of Arts facing tough times: the Faculty of Science is enduring challenges of its own. This fall, there will be 300 fewer students enrolled in the faculty, with an additional 300 seats slated to be cut next year. Again, it all comes down to the budget.

“Some people mistakenly think there is an awful lot of fat in the system and it would be easy to find 50-ish million dollars or whatever the magic number is and things will be good. But the reality of the situation is that after four years of significant cuts there is no fat left in the system,” says Dean Jonathan Schaeffer, who was unable to give an exact figure in terms of the monetary cuts, but does say it will be in the millions of dollars.

The provincial government was providing funding in order for the faculty to grow, but in 2010 that funding was capped at 6100 students per year—the current number was 6700, which will be down to 6400 this fall.

“I’m talking to you from the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences, the CCIS building.” Schaeffer says. “This was built by the government, $450 million dollars with the intent to grow the Faculty of Science to 7300 students, so we have the physical capacity to handle 7300 students, but what am I doing? I’m taking us from 6700 to 6400 to 6100 and I don’t even know where the bottom is.” His frustration is evident.

“Science is obviously the basis of what everyone wants to see in the economy and what people want to do,” says Shauna Regan, president of the Interdepartmental Science Student Society and fourth-year honours physiology student, adding the first mention of cuts to the faculty came in March when the provincial budget was announced, and that regular consultation between faculty and the ISSS will continue.

To make these cuts, the admissions average has been raised significantly. Four years ago, a 72-percent average in high school was required to enroll in a general science degree. The required average has risen steadily over that time, though, with it now sitting at 80 percent. To cut 300 more seats next year, it will be raised again, but that number has not been released.

“I think the cuts as a whole have been having a negative impact on what people think of the U of A in terms of how they spend money. In terms of students, I don’t think it’s good to have this perception that it’s hard to get an education here or hard to get in. It’s kind of elitist almost,” Regan adds. “If we don’t get an increase in grant funding I would imagine there needs to be a lot more consolidation between the different faculties.”

“I’m being forced to exclude highly qualified Alberta students and deny them a University of Alberta Faculty of Science education. This is devastating to me, personally,” Schaeffer says. “We really don’t want to be doing this, but I have to. As dean, it’s my job to make fiscally prudent decisions to balance the books and this is one of the ways we have to do it.”

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