Our Cadillac, the Advanced Education Election Issue 2019

Cadillac, Cadillac, Long and dark, shiny and black.
Open up your engines let `em roar.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Fifty five percent of Canada’s working age population has some form of post secondary education (diploma, certificate, apprenticeship or degree). This is higher than the 32% average of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. So we Canadians thump our chests each time that OECD report comes out!

In Alberta, 1.8 million people have post secondary education. There has been a steady rise education levels over the past number of decades. In the past 10 years, the number of workers with a diploma or certificate rose by 35% and those with a bachelor’s degree increased by over 60%. Alberta is the Cadillac of Canada when it comes to post secondary education.

There are about 300,000 Albertans participating in some form of adult education today. 260,000 are enrolled in post secondary programs and the remainder are in adult upgrading or continuing education.

Alberta’s post secondary system has 26 publicly funded institutions in six categories:

Major Universities – Edmonton, Lethbridge, Calgary and Athabasca

Universities focused on bachelor and applied degrees – McEwan and Mount Royal

Technical Institutes – NAIT and SAIT

Community Colleges – Lakeland, Keyano, Red Deer, Medicine Hat Northern Lakes, Norquest, Lethbridge, Bow Valley, Olds, Portage and Grande Prairie

Faith-based Colleges (e.g. Kings University)

Specialized Institutions – (e.g. Banff Center)

And there are a host of private and indigenous delivery organizations too.

Alberta Advanced Education manages the system through oversight of the boards and agencies that govern the institutions. It manages integration and transfers of credits through a coordinating vehicle called Campus Alberta. It sets out province wide strategic direction and funds the system.

Its main job is to fund the system, distributing around $6.0 billion to institutions and students.

The NDP have the system up on the hoist and are working on a big overhaul.  It is like a 1990s gas guzzling Cadillac driven by a 20-something with the left turning signal permanently blinking!

So looking ahead to the election of 2019, post-secondary education will be a very robust topic.  Here is how the issues will play out:

Public Affordability

Racking up $2.5 billion debt year after year isn’t sustainable. All parties will offer up plans to address the budget deficit:

  • One of the first targets will be capital spending. But there is an unresolved question about deferred maintenance. We seem to like to build new buildings while older stuff is left to deteriorate

  • There will be a discussion about re-organizing the system to achieve efficiencies. Severely Normal Albertans should be mindful that the accordion-like amalgamation, then disassembly, of the health system didn’t result in promised savings

  • And there will be proposals to use technologies and internet based systems to reduce costs.

Learner’s Access

Political parties will have different answers about who should pay. How much should students pay for tuition? And how much they should pay back in loans versus scholarships? This topic will have a direct impact of the voting behaviour of students and their families.

And who gets to attend will also be part of the conversation. Are indigenous learners participating? Is the economy recovering so that apprentices are in demand? Should an international student occupy a seat while a well qualified Alberta student is denied a spot?

Governance and Policy Direction

The NDP have undertaken a number of significant reviews that will form their platform in the next election. The other parties will be looking for disconnects and examples of failures that support the narrative that the NDP are ideologically driven.

Here is how these became future election issues:

PUBLIC AFFORDABILITY

In 2013, the PC government took a big bite out of the system – reducing post secondary funding by 6.8%. They planned a further reduction of 1.4% for 2015. But after the 2015 election the NDP party cancelled that proposed reduction and instead added $280 million. So the budget moved from $5.7 billion in 2015 to $5.9 billion in 2016 and $6.0 billion in 2017. The current business plan sees budget growth at roughly $150 million annually for the next couple of years.

The bad news is that revenues don’t match expenditures! Revenue of $3.3 billion in 2016 left a deficit of about $2.6 billion. 2017 will be similar and there doesn’t look like a turnaround in the next few years.

And there are continued upward cost pressures within the system. About 60% of the systems costs are staffing so salaries and benefits remain a constant cost pressure. Institutions also lament that past increases that have not kept up with inflation and they struggle with significant deferred maintenance costs for buildings and equipment.

The capital spending budget was about $530 million in 2016. The single biggest allocation was $125 million to the University of Lethbridge. Funds also flowed to multi-year construction projects at Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer. Another area of focus was capital for information technology improvements.

So we are paying for gas with our credit card…..

LEARNERS’ ACCESS

All told, the tuition and fees paid by Alberta students cover approximately 12% of the cost of delivering apprenticeship programs and 26% of the cost of other post-secondary programs.

A top priority for the NDP has been to improve accessibility for learners. This student centred focus resulted in:

  • increasing amount and eligibility of student loans. (Loans funding increased by $118 million – +22%)

  • increasing scholarships by $20 million over the past 2 years (about 15,500) awards

  • capping all tuitions and rolling back 25 scheduled tuition increases (and providing offsetting funding to institutions)

  • allowing apprentices to access student loans

  • doubling low income grants to $250 per month per student

  • eliminating required spousal contribution to the student’s approved budget

  • setting up online applications to a high school completion grant (Alexander Rutherford) (resulting in 5,000 more approved applications)

  • eliminating a $2,000 credential incentive grant to 18,000 students (this helped fund the new funding programs)

  • focusing on indigenous students participation – Additional funding has been allocated to adult upgrading and institutions to meet special needs of indigenous students. (There are about 220,000 indigenous people in Alberta – about 6.2% of the population. And about 10,000 aboriginal students are enrolled in post secondary programs; roughly 4% of the students).

The 20-somethings have the keys to the old caddy now!

SYSTEM REVIEW AND GOVERNANCE

The NDP are in the midst of a review of Alberta’s boards agencies and commissions. In the first phase (completed in 2016) six entities linked to Advanced Education were reviewed. Only one escaped being put forward for further review in phase two: Included in the phase two review are:

  • Students Finance Board

  • Campus Alberta Quality Council

  • Access Advisory Council

  • Alberta Heritage Scholarship Committees

  • Alberta Council on Admissions and Transfer

As part of a third phase, the boards of public post-secondary institutions will be reviewed.  Roles and mandates, board member selection, conflicts of interest and executive compensation will be assessed. The Government expects to make policy and legislative changes in 2018.

The NDP also modified the board member recruitment process by installing an online applicatIon process. There are 341 board positions on Advanced Education boards. By March 2017, the new system was used to fill 160 positions.

There is also a review of tuition and mandatory fees policies for students, international students and apprentices. The aim is to achieve ‘fairness’ in tuition increases. The review will also look at the range of student aid programs (scholarships, loans).

One can assume that many of the appointees share the NDP philosophy. One might further assume the reviews will be guided by the values the NDP hold.

The left turn signal on the Caddy is blinking steadily…..