When the Alberta government cut a historic $147 million from post-secondary education funding in the spring of 2013, institutions across the province were blindsided by the loss of seven percent of their budgets. It led to job losses, fewer spots for students, higher tuitions and a stain of instability and worry that persists today.
The cuts, under the leadership of Alison Redford, were blamed on a “bitumen bubble”—a price gap between Alberta’s oilsands product and other North American fossil fuels. And with oil prices taking a spectacular nosedive, the Alberta government is predicting a gap of up to $7 billion for the spring budget.
None of this bodes well for Alberta’s universities, colleges and polytechnics—or Alberta’s future. The province already has one of the lowest post-secondary participation rates in the country.
“We are progressively weakening our investment in human capital,” says University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera. “There’s one thing that’s going to make a difference to this province in the next 10 years and that is investment in human capital. So cutting post-secondary at this point in time is one of the most, sadly, counterintuitive steps to take—one that would seriously affect the long-term prosperity of this province.”
MacEwan University president David Atkinson says the loss of funding in 2013 was actually more acute than the reported number. The government had already committed to stable funding increases of two percent for three years—money Grant MacEwan administrators had already calculated into their budget forecast. The government also slashed infrastructure maintenance funding by two-thirds, funds used for capital expenses like new boilers or fixing air conditioners.
“By the time you add it all up, [the loss in funding] was actually 15 percent,” Atkinson says.
Job and program losses
Administrators scrambled to make ends meet. The University of Calgary cut 200 students from its Faculty of Arts program in May 2013. Mount Royal University planned to stop accepting students in three diploma programs and four certificate programs. The University of Alberta is down 122 academic staff and planned to suspend 20 arts programs and to accept 300 fewer science students. Grant MacEwan lost 48 positions, 38 of them vacant, meaning there were 10 direct job losses.
Atkinson says efficiencies, centralizing and aggressive restructuring of programs generated the bulk of the money MacEwan needed to respond to the cuts. But it was an extremely stressful time of uncertainty.
“I have a few more grey hairs than I had earlier in my life,” he says. “I don’t want to diminish the challenge.”
After the 2013 cuts, NAIT lost 91 staff.
“That clearly did have an impact,” says Glenn Feltham, the polytechnic’s president. “It is change and there is uncertainty. … Those degrees of freedom that you have to be able to expand programs are somewhat limited when the number of individuals you have to support certain activities and programs are reduced.”
A weak return
The Alberta PCs did kick some money back into post-secondary in November 2013. Then Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk announced that $50 million would be returned. The 2014 – 2015 budget saw another $32.5 million kicked back in, or a 1.6-percent bump—short, again, of the promised two-percent increase for three years.
In total, $82.5 million, or about 56 percent of the lost post-secondary budget, was returned.
Craig Loewen, press secretary for Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education Don Scott, hinted that schools shouldn’t be holding their breaths for that two-percent increase.
“That promise was now three premiers ago and probably several post-secondary ministers ago,” Loewen says. “That hasn’t been something that’s been promised for the upcoming budget.”
Don’t surprise us
But all three presidents of Edmonton’s major post-secondaries stressed the need for stable, growing investment. Feltham notes that more than 40 000 people moved to Alberta last year and most of them settled in either Edmonton or Calgary. He says the government needs to account for this huge influx.
And Atkinson shows evident frustration with the bait-and-switch funding the Alberta government has employed.
“Just tell us how much money we’re going to have for the next three years and we can plan—but don’t surprise us,” Atkinson says. “That seven-percent reduction a couple of years ago; nobody, nobody had anticipated. It just happened, and suddenly we were left having to commit unbelievable amounts of time and energy in a very short period to try to manage our fiscal situation.”
Samarasekera says the institution is basically “on hold” as far as planning for the future. She notes that since 2008, the great global recession, Alberta has had just two years where post-secondary budgets were increased by two percent. The rest of the years they lost money.
“That is six years of negative funding for post-secondary while inflation is one or two percent per year,” Samarasekera says. “Costs are going up and we keep losing money. We are now less well-funded than we were in 2008.
“A top priority”
Loewen says the government has heard that message and calls it “a top priority.”
“One of the things Premier[Jim] Prentice mandated Minister Scott to do is to develop a plan for stable and predictable funding,” the spokesman says. “And we want that in place as soon as possible.”
However, he was not able to provide a timetable of when that plan would be released or what the plan might contain. Nor could he comment on whether Prentice’s election promise to return the money slashed from the 2013 budget still holds weight.
This uncertainty weighs heavily on the minds of the province’s top post-secondary administrators. And the future, with the prospect of sustained low oil prices and even the possibility of a recession in Alberta, is not inspiring.
“We are worried—I think everyone in the province is worried,” Atkinson says. “We’ve been working on developing new programming and all of that was on an assumption that at least the money we had then we’d still have today. And that’s no longer the case. And so, as far as our future is concerned, it’s a big worry.”