Alberta advanced education minister’s press release offers no specificity towards pressing matters
On November 30 of this year, Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt, announced that the government would be extending the post-secondary tuition freeze for a fourth year to cover the 2018-2019 academic year.
Schmidt also announced that the government would provide Alberta’s universities and colleges sufficient funding to back-fill any foregone revenue resulting from the freeze.
The press release announcing the extension of the freeze on tuition and fees and the corresponding compensation boasted that, “This delivers on the government’s commitment to affordability and stability within the post-secondary education system and ensures that institutions are able to maintain programs and spaces for students.”
The very next day, however, Schmidt sent a letter to the province’s universities and colleges giving them two weeks to come up with a “discretionary spending restraint plan” that identifies spending cuts that are not already included in their current year budgets. These are cuts that would be implemented immediately and be maintained in future years as well.
The letter did not specify where those cuts are to be made or how much is to be cut, only that the focus needed to be on “discretionary spending.”
No definition whatsoever was provided for the term “discretionary,” leaving it entirely up to university and college administrators to interpret the term for themselves.
The letter did provide some suggestions based on what government departments are doing, including “hiring restraint, deferring non-essential grants and limiting travel, hosting, advertising, working sessions and conferences that do not directly impact the provision of services and programs to Albertans.”
When pushed by reporters, Schmidt insisted that neither the request nor the timelines were unreasonable, and asserted the government position that these cuts are to be done in a way that puts students first and minimizes impact on those students.
Beyond the absurdity of both the timeline and the expectation that institutions who are currently in the midst of preparations for next year’s budget can change gears to essentially re-write a budget that they are halfway through implementing, the suggestion that this can be done with minimal impact on students shows an unfortunate lack of understanding of both the nature and current state of post-secondary education in Alberta.
The post-secondary sector in Alberta took a significant beating with the election of Ralph Klein as Premier in 1993—a beating that continued throughout the PC’s tenure in government with almost constant cuts, reduced student funding, and rising tuition.
Most recently, the sector was dealt a cut of almost seven percent in 2013 followed by a further cut of 1.3 percent in 2014. The PC’s final budget, delivered by Jim Prentice in March 2015 just before the election, included a further cut of 1.4 percent and proposed another cut of 2.7 percent for the following year.
Universities and colleges dealt with those cuts by doing things like laying off front-line support staff, cancelling library subscriptions to academic journals and databases, taking office phones away from many professors, greatly reducing photocopying and printing budgets, and reducing access to travel and conferences for academic staff as well as graduate and undergraduate students. Institutions also greatly increased the proportion of teaching being done by precarious contract academics and reduced the number of tenure track professors being hired.
While the New Democrats moved quickly to reverse some of the most recent cuts when they came to power, the province’s institutions have still not fully recovered from the impact of decades of underfunding and neglect.
Given that background and context, the harsh reality is that every single dollar cut by these institutions will have a direct and lasting impact on the quality of education received by students, the level of services provided to them, and the overall richness of their post-secondary experience.
Further cuts will also impact Alberta’s ability to attract the best and brightest academics and reduce the significant contribution that academic research is able to make to the public interest. Funds spent on travel, conferences, support staff and resources, grants, and collaborative projects all directly benefits students and their education, and removing them would have serious consequences.
While it is undeniably true that there is ample room to cut in both the salary levels and numbers of senior administrators in the post-secondary sector across the province, both of which have grown exponentially in the last two decades, Schmidt’s lack of direction and specificity in this regard makes it highly unlikely that administrators will identify their own salaries and jobs as discretionary.
This government has articulated repeatedly the ways in which a world-class post-secondary sector contributes to the public interest and overall quality of life in Alberta. Getting there will require significant investment in the sector going forward. This call for austerity marks a concerted move in the wrong direction and should be reversed.