The Alberta United Conservative Party (UCP) government has received a report from a panel of experts looking at the expenditure side of the Alberta budget. The parameters of the report were to lay out a path to balance the budget within a couple of years. No small feat since the 2018-19 deficit was $6.7 billion. The panel was specifically forbidden to consider revenue increases as part of the solution. The hill is even steeper because the UCP government reduced its revenue by eliminating the carbon tax and lowering the corporate income tax. As the economy continues to languish, the expectation is that program reductions, and wage and staffing cuts are on the way.
One of the areas that seems destined for cuts is advanced education. The UCP platform themes were trades training and linkage between education and employment. This is in contrast to the NDP’s focus on student affordability and tuition freezes.
The UCP recently made a dramatic shift in the personnel governing the advanced education system. New chairs were appointed to the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, Mount Royal and MacEwan Universities, SAIT, NAIT, Athabasca University, Keyano College and the Banff Centre. Along with these new chairs came the appointment of 29 new public members.
Ostensibly, the purpose is to improve the linkage to the private sector and add chairs that have stronger experience working with large organizations. One might also assume the new appointees will be comfortable with the budget reductions that will show up in mid-September.
But there is a bigger issue here! It can be argued that Alberta has only two globally competitive advantages, our resources and our people – specifically a highly educated and productive workforce. Traditionally, we pin our hopes for economic resilience on resource development. But our export-oriented businesses, led and supported by a skilled workforce, are vital to our future economy.
So, the mission of the advanced education system is more vital than ever to our future prosperity. Perhaps the ‘new management’ at these institutions will take up the bigger challenges that faces the advanced education system. There is a need to shift the direction (and perhaps the velocity of change) within the system.
Severely normal Albertans should watch for progress within the system in these areas:
- A shift to stronger ties and linkages to industry, including recognizing the skills training the private sector provides, along with more graduates in sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics
- A nimbler approach to new program development, one that is not so slow and grounded in “we always did it that way”
- Much more seamless student transfers among institutions, there are still too many institutional barriers that needlessly hinder student mobility
- A stronger commitment to online learning, the system’s capacity is stretched to the limit; online courses will reduce the need for new bricks and mortar
- Re-thinking how we balance access for Alberta students with a need to attract talented foreign students. Too many Albertans are being shut out of masters and doctoral programs.
- A renewed recognition that learning is lifelong, not just an episode after high school. Continuing education should be valued and credentialed.
The UCP have boxed themselves into a corner whereby cuts to advanced education seem inevitable perhaps to the exclusion of system improvement. Severely normal Albertans must hope that the new appointees have some ‘fire in their bellies’ for the bigger challenges of system improvement.