Compromising quality

// Kathleen Zenith
// Kathleen Zenith

Budget cuts to post-secondary education heats up protesters

More than 500 protestors braved frigid temperatures to march across the High Level Bridge to the Alberta legislature on March 15. They made the windy trip through freshly fallen snow to show their opposition to the provincial budget announcement of a 6.8-percent cut to the Campus Alberta Grant.

The cut to the grant, which 26 post-secondary institutions were depending on, saw the swift coalescence of students, faculty, support staff and otherwise concerned Albertans into the Coalition for Action on Post-Secondary Education (CAPSE). The group followed up their legislature protest with a flash mob rally around the University of Alberta campus last week—and they don’t plan to stop.

“CAPSE is a university, but also a citizens’, response to the harmful cuts to post secondary education in Alberta—but also an affirmation of post-secondary’s importance,” CAPSE spokesperson Brent Kelly says. “We do care about post-secondary education and we’re really concerned about the fact that the government is essentially considering taking an axe to it.”

That axe would cleave around $55  million from what the University of Alberta, for instance, was expecting following last year’s promise of a two percent increase—a total of a 9.2 percent effective decrease. But a lot has changed since then says Thomas Lukaszuk, Deputy Premier and Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education

“You’d have to live in a cave not to know that a six billion-dollar drop in the government’s revenue is what happened,” he says. “The oil has just bottomed out, and as you know, oil royalties—the ones the NDP wants to tax even more—are the bread and butter of this province.”

The shortfall has led to a tight budget all around. Almost every ministry took a cut, but the NDP’s post-secondary critic, Rachel Notley, doesn’t buy that it was necessary.

“Where they’re coming from is what I would categorize as political cowardice,” she says. “We have a fiscal problem in this province where we have a flat-tax system, where the wealthiest people in the province pay the lowest taxes in the country and corporations pay the lowest taxes in the country.

“This is what happens when you have a government that is unprepared to ask the wealthiest Albertans to pay their fair share—and instead we’re going to compromise our education system, we’re going to compromise our diversification opportunities and we’re of course going to compromise the quality of education received by Alberta students.”

Lukaszuk defends the current tax and royalties system, claiming that the lower tax rates Alberta offers are necessary to keep the province competitive. Citing British Columbia and Saskatchewan as examples of what Alberta should avoid, he spoke about the advantage of Alberta attracting people to the province and the availability of jobs for graduates when they leave university.

When it comes to the implementation of the cuts, Lukaszuk says there are inefficiencies in Alberta’s post-secondary system, such as different institutions in the same location offering similar programs—the University of Alberta’s Calgary campus and the University of Calgary both offering an MBA, for instance.

“They want to see greater collaboration between Campus Alberta,” University of Alberta Students’ Union Vice-President (External) Petros Kusmu says. “By having these cuts, they’ll be essentially forcing institutions to rethink the way they currently do business. [And] find ways to collaborate and complement each other rather than competing with one another, trying to see if there are any ways of reducing redundancies—and that last part is the worrisome part,” Kusmu explains. “When we hear that, one of our fears is reducing programs.”

And along with quality of education, Kusmu worries about further mandatory non-instructional fee and market modifier increases, which get around the tuition cap enforced by the province. That’s a cap that will remain in place.

“Luckily the government understands that the cost of getting a degree is already too high as it is and they don’t want to see these cuts burdened on the backs of students,” Kusmu says. “So that’s something we’re extremely happy to see—that being said, the institutions are limited in the options they can choose from.”

While tuition itself cannot be increased to bridge the gap, institutions really have few choices: increase non-instructional fees to get around the tuition cap, making post-secondary less accessible but allowing for a level of maintained quality; cut faculty, support staff or programs, reducing the quality outright; or comply with the government’s calls for significant restructuring—which at this point remains unclear outside of several specific examples of claimed redundancies. Whatever combination is chosen, one thing is clear: post-secondary education in this province will undergo change.

The one piece currently missing from the government is a forthcoming set of mandate letters. Little has been clarified about them, but fears abound that they will interfere with on-the-ground academia. Signs at the rally pronounced the importance of curiosity-driven research and protestors demanded that the government stay out of research. The University of Alberta received a draft of a one of these letters on March 22.

“Our concern is that these mandate letters are going to significantly limit the nature of intellectual inquiry in our post-secondary institutions and in particular our research institutions.” Notley says. “By doing that, we are going to undermine our credibility and our reputation outside of this province and internationally.”

“Academic freedom is not something these letters will be infringing on.” Lukaszuk said in response. “The letters will be relevant to how the universities are administered (and) will be promoting cooperation and collaboration.”

Despite the assurances from the Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education, students, staff and institutions remain concerned. Students fear more sessional instructors replacing valuable professors, program cuts and fee increases. Opposition MLAs worry about the long-term effects on the intellectual health of the province.

And as for CAPSE, they don’t plan to go away yet. Regardless of whether the protests can change the mind of the government this year, they hope their presence and persistence will dissuade similar cuts when the next budget comes around.

“We have a four-week plan,” Kelly says. “Our end goal is to raise as much awareness as possible, to organize and get as many people involved as possible, to take a stand opposing these cuts and affirming the importance of education and to get the government to listen as much as possible.”

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