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What’s behind education cuts?

Conservative ideology at work

The­re is much hand wringing and speculation by faculty, staff and students at Alberta’s colleges and universities about how best to proceed in light of the drastic cuts to post-secondary funding announced in the 2013 Alberta Budget.

After several years of no increases at all, the province’s post-secondary institutions had been promised an increase of two percent to their base operational grants this year. Instead, they received an overall cut of 6.8 percent. What this means for most institutions in the province is an actual cut of 7.2 or 7.3 percent to their operating grants for the 2013 – 2014 fiscal years. Once you factor in the two percent they had been expecting, the bottom line is that the province’s colleges and universities are actually looking at having to slash close to 10 percent in their operating budgets—the textbook definition of being decimated.

Indira Samarasekera, the University of Alberta’s president since 2005, has said repeatedly in the media that this cut was completely unexpected. While the timing and scope of the budget cut may have been a complete surprise to everyone involved, it cannot be said that the willingness to cut was all that surprising. In fact, it can be said that the cut is entirely consistent with the direction and ideology promoted for post-secondary education in Alberta by both the government and the university governors and senior administrators who now claim they never saw it coming.

Boards of governors at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions are appointed directly by government. As such, they tend to be made up of Conservative party loyalists who strongly support the ideological and policy leanings of the government. It is these governors who hire the presidents and senior managers of their respective institutions. Here again, those ideological and policy leanings tend to get replicated and reinforced.

The result has been post-secondary institutions across the province supporting government’s bid to keep taxes and expenditures low by voluntarily turning to the corporate sector, wealthy philanthropists and investments in money markets to grow their institutions. It has almost meant the adoption of a very corporate governance model with very well-paid presidents and vice-presidents working the corporate and Conservative cocktail, conference and think-tank circuit to generate funds for their institutions. Evidence of this can be found in the number of allegations over the past couple of years of senior administrators and governors of the province’s institutions using public funds to attend Conservative fundraisers.

This is how ideology reproduces itself, and how pro-corporate neoliberal ideology has come to dominate the structure, governance and administration of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. Samarasekera, for example, attends the World Economic Forum at Davos, has sat on the board of the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Conference Board of Canada, and has been a consultant to multi-national steel companies around the world.

It could be argued that this approach has served the province’s universities well. For example, just look at the number of energy-industry funded research chairs and think tanks at the U of A alone, or at the number of new buildings and classrooms at the U of A that have been branded by oil and gas companies. It could also be argued that this wealth and corporate largesse has come at the expense of programming in the arts and humanities which, for the most part, entered this current round of cuts not having recovered from Klein’s cuts in the ’90s, as evidenced by the over-full classes, the neglected infrastructure and lack of budgets for even phones and photocopying in many departments.

Whether you agree with it or not, it is this ideology, embraced so fully by presidents and governors, that has now come home to roost. Neoliberalism dictates that the true value of anything in society is best determined by the money it can generate in a free and open market. In the end, it is clear that this combination of reduced government funding and an entrenched corporate and neoliberal ideology stands to further cripple programming in the arts and humanities while further strengthening those programs which can garner financial support from the province’s corporate sector.

Understanding the source of these cuts, however, makes it clear that it’s not enough to just protest the cuts and demand more money. If what we want is meaningful change, then we must begin by working for a genuine transformation of the ideology and beliefs that are making the current state of affairs possible, and that means getting political. It means calling out the fact that these cuts are grounded in ideology, not finances. It means being clear about the complicity of boards and senior administration in that ideology. And it means organizing a broad fight-back against austerity overall, not just in post-secondary education. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. His column reflects his own viewpoint and not necessarily that of the Parkland Institute or the U of A.

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