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The political battle over postsecondary education in Alberta

The western province has been through some dark times when it comes to funding. Will the newly elected government bring solutions, or more controversy?
AUG 23 2023

The political battle over postsecondary education in Alberta

The western province has been through some dark times when it comes to funding. Will the newly elected government bring solutions, or more controversy?


Alberta’s postsecondary education system is under siege, according to many within the province’s academic community. Since the United Conservative Party (UCP) formed a majority government in April 2019, after former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney merged two warring conservative factions, the UCP undertook a sustained and expansive restructuring of the higher education sector. Now, with the re-election of the UCP, many people working and studying at Alberta’s universities are bracing for even more change.

“Right now in Alberta, it’s a dark time,” says Marc Spooner, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina who has written widely on higher education funding.

Major changes over the past few years include a new performance-based funding model that requires part of a university’s provincial funding be tied to measures such as enrolment targets and employment rates of graduates – a design intended to build a system that’s highly responsive to labour market needs. In Mr. Kenney’s own words, as reported in The Calgary Herald, the government is “trying to retool the education system.” But the overhaul has left some observers concerned for the future of the social sciences, humanities and fine arts in Alberta, and questioning whose job it is to determine what knowledge students can access at universities.

“The last five years have been amongst the most challenging that the system overall has experienced in a long, long time.”

Mr. Kenney stepped down from the premiership in May 2022, following a leadership review he narrowly won. UCP voters chose Danielle Smith to succeed him. She faced her own test during a provincial election this past May that pitted her against New Democratic Party leader — and former premier — Rachel Notley. Ms. Smith’s UCP was re-elected with a majority, albeit with 14 fewer seats than the party held in 2019.

The election outcome signals continued controversy over the state of postsecondary education in Alberta in which many fear the very purpose of higher education is under attack.

The situation has sweeping ramifications both throughout the province and beyond Alberta’s borders. Alberta is “a real bellwether for what’s coming to the rest of Canada,” says Dr. Spooner. “What I see as sort of a wider assault on higher ed that’s happening globally in certain countries, and certainly throughout the United States, is definitely happening in Alberta.”

Dr. Spooner examined that “assault” in a chapter he wrote for Anger and Angst: Jason Kenney’s Legacy and Alberta’s Right, a book of essays edited by Trevor W. Harrison and Ricardo Acuña, published this year. Against the backdrop of a larger anti-intellectual movement, he argues that Alberta’s underfunding and cuts have created a path to major restructuring.

Provincial funding cuts to postsecondary education totalled more than half a billion dollars between 2019 and 2023. That represents a staggering 31 per cent cut to funding over the last five years, according to data from Higher Education Strategy Associates. University Affairs requested an interview with new Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

At the same time, the provincial government is repurposing and reprogramming the role of universities, says Dr. Spooner. “There’s a real push to move universities away from their traditional mission of serving the public and democratic society, to narrow them and reduce them to serving industry and labour market needs,” he says.

When the role of universities is reduced to serving the economy, Dr. Spooner says the many benefits that a robust higher education system bring to society are at risk of being lost. “It has to be about more than just jobs.” He thinks university degrees should give students portable and flexible skills – such as critical thinking and creative thinking – that can be applied to many different types of work, including jobs that have not been invented yet.

Alberta’s blueprint for change

In April 2021, before Mr. Kenney stepped down, the provincial government unveiled its 10-year plan for postsecondary education in Alberta, a blueprint titled Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs. “At its core, the strategy will work to build skills for jobs to ensure that Albertans develop the knowledge and competencies they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world,” announced then minister of advanced education Demetrios Nicolaides in a news release. The document emphasized applied job training, careers in trades and the commercialization of research. Flagship initiatives under the strategy have included expanding apprenticeship education and work-integrated learning opportunities as well as creating new microcredential opportunities, which the government describes as agile learning programs designed specifically to help people develop skills for the workforce.

The response to the plan was mixed. UA reported at the time that it was met with praise from university leadership but dismay from faculty associations. The plan was released just a few months after Alberta’s 2021-22 budget predicted a deficit of $18.2 billion, given low oil prices and the continued recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Just two years later, the rising price of oil led to a huge change in the government’s finances, with a $2.4 billion surplus projected in the 2023-24 budget.

Bill Werry is executive director of the Alberta Post-Secondary Network, formerly known as the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta, which represents the presidents of Alberta’s 26 postsecondary institutions. “In lots of ways,” he says, “the last five years have been amongst the most challenging that the system overall has experienced in a long, long time.”

According to Mr. Werry, the government’s heavy emphasis on connecting postsecondary institutions to labour market challenges has had a significant impact. He notes that there’s been targeted funding from the province for specific kinds of programming in the health and tech sectors, and in other areas where there’s high demand for a skilled workforce. Alberta 2030 has also renewed an emphasis on work-integrated learning initiatives. Mr. Werry says ensuring institutions are building such initiatives into their programs presents challenges and opportunities.

“The last few years have resulted in some soul searching on the part of the system and I think, generally speaking, our members have come out of it in pretty good shape,” Mr. Werry says. “I think there’s a broader recognition on the part of the province about the importance of postsecondary. We’re happy with where we’ve ended up, but there were some challenging times getting to where we are now.”

Dr. Spooner, at U of Regina, sees the situation differently. He describes the consequences of the past five years as the theft of opportunity for young people. Students now face large tuition increases combined with more limited choice in what they can study, as the government directs universities on which industries to focus. “It’s devastating to watch,” he says.

Less affordable, less accessible

Shaziah Jinnah Morsette started studying at the University of Calgary in 2015, as an interdisciplinary student in the faculty of arts. Now president of the Students’ Union, she sums up the state of postsecondary education in the province this way: “We are paying far more and getting far less for our education.”

The Students’ Union estimates tuition costs have increased by 33 per cent since 2019, when a tuition freeze that had been in place for five years was lifted. That’s the fastest and largest increase to tuition in Alberta’s history, Ms. Jinnah Morsette noted, adding that it happened against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Alberta’s 2019 budget also cut provincial tuition and education tax credits – which advocates characterize as a $200-million cut to student aid – and increased the interest rate for student loans. Ms. Jinnah Morsette says mandatory fees have also increased by about 20 per cent since 2019. Another challenge is the cancellation of a wage subsidy program connecting students to employers for summer work. The Summer Temporary Employment Program wasn’t an efficient use of government cash, a UCP spokesperson told CBC Calgary when the program was axed in 2019.

“All Albertans have really taken a hit over the last few years with inflation and cost of living increases, but students are at a breaking point,” Ms. Jinnah Morsette says.

The UCP’s 2023 budget, announced in February, capped postsecondary education tuition hikes at two per cent starting in 2024, and introduced other measures to make education more affordable. These included reducing student loan interest rates and doubling the student loan interest-free grace period to 12 months. However, not everyone feels those actions go far enough. “What the government has announced is woefully inadequate to deal with inflation pressures and the damage that has been done by the province,” Ms. Jinnah Morsette says.

Rent increases are exacerbating the tough financial situation students face, especially for people in bigger cities such as Calgary and Edmonton. Samantha Scott is the outgoing chair at the Council of Alberta University Students, an organization that represents the interests of over 114,000 undergraduate students across Alberta at five universities. Affordability challenges, Ms. Scott says, are leading to “heartbreaking” statistics at campus food banks across the province that show dramatic increases in use, including at the University of Lethbridge, where Ms. Scott served as the student union’s vice-president, external.

“It’s really critical to ask these questions about who is determining the priorities of research and teaching.”

Such increased costs come immediately after another challenging time for students: the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID brought to the forefront the struggle with mental health that many people face, but students in particular, so we’ve been advocating a lot for increased mental health funding on campuses,” Ms. Scott says. Mental health is a priority shared by Mr. Werry at the Alberta Post-Secondary Network. “We’re also concerned about issues like mental health and the challenges that we’ve seen post-pandemic. All of our members have seen rising access to mental health services by students and faculty for that matter,” he says. More than 3,000 academic staff are represented by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, made up from four universities. The confederation’s president, Jon Doan, says faculty have faced numerous challenges amid the UCP government’s push to reshape Alberta’s higher education system.

“There’s been a real increase in conflictual labour negotiations in Alberta’s universities, including strikes at both University of Lethbridge and Concordia University in Edmonton. And these are upsetting conditions for everybody,” he says.

The labour unrest at Alberta universities can be traced to the provincial government under the NDP, which extended the right to strike to postsecondary faculty and other academic staff in 2017. That change came as a result of a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015, leading to shifts in the bargaining climate between unions and universities.

Subsequent budget cuts have driven labour strife, Dr. Doan adds, and the ensuing negotiations have been problematic given the UCP’s Public Sector Employers Act, passed in 2019, that allows the government to set secret bargaining mandates for negotiations with public sector workers. “Public employers are given directives about what to negotiate, what to include, but they’re not allowed to discuss these directives with the union or association that they’re negotiating with,” Dr. Doan says. This slows down bargaining and increases the possibility of labour stoppage, he notes, leading to challenges that complicate the faculty-institution relationship. Parallel to the labour unrest is the situation that unfolded at Athabasca University throughout 2022 and into 2023. It involved what Dr. Doan describes as an “explosive showdown” between the government, the university’s board of governors and then-president Peter Scott. The conflict was rooted in disagreement over the online university’s role in stimulating rural economic growth.

The government wanted the university to strengthen its physical presence in the town of Athabasca, where the university’s administrative offices are based, and went on to overhaul Athabasca U’s board of governors before the two parties reached a funding agreement in late 2022.

In addition to replacing the board chair, removing four public members and adding seven new public members, regulatory changes were made to reserve at least two board seats for local residents – a change that Mr. Nicolaides had previously told UA was instrumental in reaching a signed agreement.

The board of governors then removed Dr. Scott as president in early 2023 and replaced him – without launching a public search – with Alex Clark, who was the university’s dean of the faculty of health disciplines at the time. [Editor’s note: Dr. Clark is also a columnist for UA]. Some observers say such dysfunction at the board level is not unique to Athabasca U. Laurie Adkin, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, has researched the UCP’s transformation of higher education through the governors it appoints to the boards of postsecondary education institutions. She is the lead author of the Parkland Institute report, Higher Education: Corporate or Public? How the UCP Is Restructuring Post-Secondary Education in Alberta, published in May 2022.

What happened at Athabasca U, she says, clearly demonstrates how university autonomy is missing in Alberta. It also conveys a strong message to other universities “that even if we did say anything critical of the government, or we did express disagreement in some fashion, we would probably be replaced.”

With the UCP’s re-election in May, Dr. Adkin expects to see “more of the same” for postsecondary in the province: austerity measures, except for areas selected by the government; a continued authoritarian approach to governing universities; and more conflict between the government and unions representing public sector workers.

“It’s really critical to ask these questions about who is determining the priorities of research and teaching,” she says. “We’re losing autonomy, which is essential to protecting the integrity of knowledge and research and serving social needs. That’s the bottom line.”

Cailynn Klingbeil
Cailynn Klingbeil is a writer, editor and freelance journalist based in Calgary.
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  1. Donald N. Baker / August 23, 2023 at 15:35

    Given growing government efforts to shape university education, i suspect that for most universities their ability to require a lean but coherent general education component in all undergraduate programs may be the best way to defend and promote the value of the humanities and social sciences in developing critical and creative thinking skills.

    • Paul Knox / August 24, 2023 at 12:48

      Universities generally have breadth requirements to ensure students don’t focus too narrowly on a program or major. But how broad is the breadth component allowed to be, and who is delivering it? Without strong language, literature, history, philosophy and social science departments, where top teachers are also top researchers attracting top graduate students, universities will struggle to offer the core of a top-quality liberal education. Unfortunately these departments are at an inherent disadvantage in metrics-based funding, Many applied-learning disciplines lead directly to professional certification and employment upon graduation, but you don’t see many Wanted: Philosophers and Historians posters at job fairs.

      Does this mean philosophers and historians don’t get work? Not at all. Ask the CEOs of companies not engaged in resource extraction — and even some that are — and they may say the analysis, interpretation and thought-concentration required in liberal studies are highly prized and compensated at a premium. Ask senior managers in the public sector and they may agree. Even so, employment in large organizations is far from the only valuable outcome of liberal education for either students or funders. This structured aid to self-discovery has paid dividends many times over for millions of Canadians and the governments, including Alberta’s, that supported them — increasingly inadequately, sad to say.

  2. Stewart Rood / August 26, 2023 at 10:44

    1. Relative to affordability, the greatest expense for our son and many Canadian students at the University of Calgary is housing. This challenge extends across Canada and was influenced by general inflation, a lag in housing construction through the Covid interval, increased immigration, and other factors. And while international students enrich our universities, recent increases may challenge capacity at some campuses.

    2. Following a five-year hold on tuition in Alberta, some increase would be expected.

    3. The recent funding cutbacks in Alberta are indeed challenging and somewhat resemble the prior ‘Kleinomics’ interval. With that, base funding was reduced and there were subsequent funds available for ‘Access’ programs that were regarded as aligned with provincial growth and employment patterns.

    Some aspects such as increased work-study opportunities would probably be broadly supported by parents, students, and the public. These might even benefit community awareness, as well as employment prospects.

    4. The Covid challenges apparently increased mental health issues and general frustration, which probably contributed to work stoppages on campuses in Alberta and across North America. There are also local factors and probably differences in vision that impeded the negotiations at Lethbridge.

    5. Marc Spooner’s negative assessments seem inflated. While funding is a serious challenge, I’m certain that my faculty colleagues across Alberta remain committed to creative and critical thinking, and breadth requirements continue.

    6. The Athabasca U situation has been peculiar from the onset, with the transition of an intended comprehensive university to a small town two hours north of Edmonton. The recent frictions apparently reflect differences in views about the requirements for some on-campus presence. Following from the virtual Covid experiment, many would regard some in-person activities as complementing the university experience for faculty and staff, as well as for students.

    (If you toggle through the Timeline, I’m in ‘2021’ with a few of our excellent and diverse students, who have advanced to engaging careers.)

  3. Ken Collier / August 31, 2023 at 19:33

    At last I get to read an account of the general Alberta post-secondary education scene and the treatment of Athabasca University (where I was a faculty member and administrator for 9 years). Time, in my view, for academics and the broad public to use their political muscle to bring university values back into central focus, with funding to back it up.