Alberta’s New Government and the Funding of Postsecondary Education and Academic Research in Alberta

It has now been a week since Albertans elected Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party (NDP) Alberta’s new premier.

Albertans elected Ms. Notley to the premier’s office despite the efforts of the current chair of the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta, who held a press conference with four other Edmonton businessmen on May 1st to urge Albertans not to vote for the NDP.

Mr. Goss subsequently issued a brief statement claiming that the views that he had expressed in the press conference were “personal” and had nothing to do with his role as chair of the University’s Board of Governors. He is certainly right to claim that he is free to express his political views to whomever he pleases. We all are. And if the media want to treat him and his corporate colleagues as if their views matter more than that of other Albertans that is the media’s choice. But how unfortunate that Mr. Goss should use his freedom of expression to inform Albertans that those who do not think as he does, as a member of the Progressive Conservative party, needed someone to make sure they were “thinking straight” before election day. Such a statement is not in keeping with the ethos of an educational institution. Faculty in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, for example, don’t teach students what to think. We teach them how to think for themselves.

The Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA) has issued two letters objecting to Mr. Goss’s conduct. The first letter, issued on May 4th, the day before the election, deplores Mr. Goss’s inability to “maintain a non-partisan leadership stance” and declares the Association’s commitment to working with any government elected by Albertans. In the second, issued on May 8th, the President of the Association declares his non-confidence in Mr. Goss and asks Premier-Elect Notley to rescind his appointment as Board chair immediately. After a Friday meeting of the Board of Governors, Mr. Goss spoke to the CBC about his intention to remain on as chair of the Board. (The CBC’s “raw” footage of that is here.) In the interview, Mr. Goss declares that the University of Alberta will find a way to “move forward” with the new government.

In all of this brouhaha the most pressing point is being missed. The point is that Albertans have elected as their new government a premier and a caucus committed (amongst other things) to the importance of postsecondary education in Alberta. The government that Mr. Goss didn’t want elected should now move as quickly as possible to undo the damage that the party Mr. Goss supports has done to postsecondary education in Alberta during Mr. Goss’s tenure as chair of the University’s Board of Governors.

Let’s be clear: as a result of the Progressive Conservatives’ budget of March 2013, the University of Alberta has gone without millions of dollars towards its budgets for 2013-14 and 2014-15, a situation that continues for 2015-16. The Faculty of Arts alone, after already enduring several years of cuts, has been informed it must cut another $1.5 million dollars from its budget for 2015-16. Cut from what? The Faculty of Arts has already lost dozens of faculty members under a “voluntary” severance program last year, and so-called “efficiencies” to administrative support had already been achieved in a restructuring of the Faculty’s administrative services in 2011-12. Almost all of what has gone on will be largely invisible to the public, but the simple fact of the matter is this: as a result of the Progressive Conservatives’ approach to the funding of postsecondary education and academic research in Alberta the University has suffered irremediable losses as faculty members were told to “do more with less” even as our numbers have been diminished. And then there are the impacts upon our students and our administrative staff. . . . 

But extraordinarily Albertans have voted out of government the party that had been in power for over 40 years and elected instead a government that has the power to change this state of affairs. Mr. Goss and his business colleagues may have dismissed the NDP as “amateurs” who don’t deserve to govern but the NDP leader grasps a social truth that the budgetary choices made by the Progressive Conservatives suggest they do not: our public institutions and the public interest matter. (I have heard her speak on these matters more than once.) She also understands that amongst our public institutions Alberta’s research universities play a unique role. They are drivers of social and economic prosperity not just for a few, but for all.

I know that we can expect radical change from the NDP because in the spring of 2013 the NDP team in the legislative offices helped the Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education (CAPSE) formally table hundreds of messages written by University of Alberta students protesting the Progressive Conservative’s cuts to postsecondary education. The NDP helped those students enter the historical record, and those students and their parents and sundry other Albertans have turned around and made another kind of history by electing the NDP to a majority government for the next four years.

The talk that we have heard over the last few years about our supposed need to “free” the University from “dependence on government” must now end. We should never have needed to be “freed” from “dependence on government.” We should always have had a government in power that believes in the importance of postsecondary education and academic research. We need such a government precisely because our public institutions must remain public in every sense of the word.

What we have seen at the University of Alberta, instead, of late: a willingness to alter the ratio of funding received from the government versus the ratio received from private and corporate donors. (I have written about this in earlier posts.) Up until just a few years ago, the University of Alberta had the highest percentage of funding from the government of any university in North America. This should have been a point of pride for the University and the government of Alberta. What a marketing gift, amongst other things! University administrations are always looking for something to define the “brand,” and this University already had what truly distinguished it from other public universities in Canada and the United States: with the highest percentage of support from any government in any jurisdiction in North America, the University of Alberta was properly speaking the most public of North American universities. But in the face of the blow to Alberta’s postsecondary institutions that the Progressive Conservative government delivered with its budget of March 2013 the ratio has changed. As government gives us less, the funds received from private donors and corporations are proportionally greater, and it is funds from private donors and corporations that the University’s new “Advancement” office, under an annual budget of millions of dollars for its activities, has been pursuing.

Why does it matter if the University spends money to obtain money from private donors and corporations? Well, the province got a good taste of why it matters when Mr. Goss and four business colleagues sat down in what the Edmonton Journal called a “highly unusual press conference” in which they “pilloried” Rachel Notley and the NDP’s policies in their attempt to tell Albertans what to think and how to vote (“Businessmen attack NDP ‘amateur’ policies”). According to the Edmonton Sun, one of these businessmen went so far as to suggest that if an NDP government were elected corporations’ charitable support for public institutions such as the Stollery Children’s Hospital would be withdrawn. Our public institutions must not be dependent on the resources of the wealthy. All of the research at Alberta’s public universities must be entirely free from corporate interests precisely so that Albertans in general are free to think as they will, and free to do so through those academics that it funds to do research on their behalf. We live in a democracy, not an oligarchy, and the teaching and research at our public postsecondary institutions must be autonomous. This necessary academic autonomy can only be achieved with the strongest possible support from the public purse.

It is sadly far too late for Alberta to recover from the losses imposed by the cuts executed by Ralph Klein during his term as premier in the 1990s. A generation of Albertans has already suffered from the decisions of Klein’s government, and everything that the province might have achieved in relation to social and technological progress and economic diversification across the subsequent two decades is forever lost. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to take any empirical measure of what does not exist. Alberta can, however, recover from the devastation wreaked by what the Progressive Conservatives’ finance minister Doug Horner called, in 2013, a “once in a generation” budget. In that “once in a generation” budget a generation was dealt an immense blow, with cuts of $147 million to postsecondary education in Alberta — cuts of a magnitude not seen in Alberta since the Great Depression. But Albertans have now voted for radical change to how the province is run, and that radical change must involve a restoration of the funding cut from the budget for postsecondary education in 2013, with its cascading effects. The NDP’s restoration of the cut funds will permit the current generation of Alberta faculty and students to create, participate in, and learn from the publicly-funded research that will help shape a new, and newly democratic, Alberta.

Oh, and as for the charge that the NDP are “amateurs”: let’s remember that the premise of democracy is that we are all equally capable of governing. On this point turn to Aristotle’s Politics, or Jacques Rancière’s 2006 book Hatred of Democracy, or myriad political theorists in between. I, for one, am really proud not only that Rachel Notley is an alumna of the University of Alberta’s Political Science department but also that one of my own former students has been elected as an MLA. 

Speaking of democracy: let us have the Association of Academic Staff and faculty associations across Alberta work with the NDP government to arrange for membership to University Boards that properly reflects the ethnic, economic, cultural, and political diversity of Albertans. Has the University of Alberta’s Board, for example, ever had a member from one of the province’s aboriginal communities? Why not? Why aren’t we requiring representation from our various communities? Let’s have Boards that truly represent Albertans, and not merely the interests of corporations, or any one party.

 

 

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“Raise corporate taxes & … reduce tuition fees”

policyalternativestuition

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Cut, Cut, and Cut Again: Five Comments on the Alberta Government’s Choice to Cut Alberta Postsecondary Education

The Government of Alberta has brought down its budget for 2015-16. Five comments on its cuts to postsecondary education.

1.  Let’s remember that the postsecondary education system in Alberta is still reeling from the Government’s 2013 cuts, which took tens of millions of dollars away from the University of Alberta alone. The current generation of Alberta’s students will never recover from those cuts. You can’t deprive an educational ecosystem of the tens of millions of dollars that it needs to sustain itself and expect it to flourish. And now the Government has gone and cut us further?

2.  The Government’s cuts to Alberta postsecondary education are 1.4% for 2015-2016 and 2.7% for 2016-2017. Do these seem like low numbers to you? Ah, well, that’s the trick of it! Who could complain about a 1.4% cut, you ask? All Albertans should be complaining about it. There is simply no way for Alberta’s postsecondary institutions to bear the brunt of these 1.4% and 2.7% cuts without having to close programs. As Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has noted, this is in fact what finance minister Robin Campbell is calling for. He says he wants the eradication of “low-value” programs. This is the kind of talk by which the Progressive Conservative government would make it seem to Albertans that their cuts somehow make good financial sense. They give us “small” cuts of 1.4% and 2.7% and we’ll be compelled to do what we ought to do anyway, get rid of “low-value” programs. The problem with this bloody canard: the University of Alberta does not have any “low-value” programs. The University of Alberta offers programs that pursue the breadth and depth of human knowledge to equip Albertans to contribute in vital and dynamic ways to the flourishing of global culture in the twenty-first century. When the Alberta government deprives Alberta’s postsecondary institutions of the funding that it requires to meet its objectives it threatens not only a generation of students but the prosperity of all Albertans. What exactly is it that the Government desires of Alberta: a dystopic, dust-bowl wasteland?

3.  But let’s get back to basics: Why is the Government cutting Alberta postsecondary education at all? In an historical moment in which life for Albertans is becoming increasingly precarious — see Gary Lamphier’s Edmonton Journal column yesterday about job losses in the province — the Government should be rushing to invest in Alberta postsecondary education. They should have been doing this consistently for the last 40 years, of course. If they had, Alberta would quite simply not be in the predicament that it is today. We wouldn’t recognize Alberta because Alberta would be a splendidly diversified province in which all kinds of creative enterprises are flourishing. It’s hard to imagine what doesn’t exist, but that’s exactly what we need to do. Albertans are currently paying the price for a profound lack of imagination in government policy. What makes the current Alberta government’s choice to cut Alberta postsecondary education so senseless: Alberta postsecondary education is an employer. Alberta postsecondary education doesn’t just put people into classrooms. It puts people to work. Its budget may be, as Paula Simons notes, relatively tiny compared to the budgets for Health and Education, but that budget goes not only to employing people, but developing the intellectual abilities and creative talents of Albertans. Health, Education, and Postsecondary Education: the Alberta Government should be pouring money into them all.

4.  But they don’t have any money, you say? Ah, yes, and why is that? The Faculty of Arts’ own Parkland Institute has addressed this matter in depth. If the Alberta Government had followed the recommendations in the Parkland Institute’s 2008 report “Saving for the Future: Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Discipline in Alberta” Alberta would have an $85 billion savings account right now that would be generating $3 billion each year — three billion dollars a year, a significant portion of which could be invested in postsecondary education with all kinds of magnificent benefits and return-on-investment for the Alberta economy.

 5.  Finally, let’s note the subtext of the Government’s claim that it is cutting Alberta’s postsecondary education system to help it “transition” to “a model that reduces reliance on government funding.” For those of us at the University of Alberta, that sounds awfully familiar. This is what we’ve been hearing for a couple of years now from the administration led by President Samarasekera: that it wishes to reduce our reliance on government funding. This logic is one whereby Alberta’s public postsecondary education would become (as suffering postsecondary educations are elsewhere, on both sides of the 49th parallel) merely “publicly-supported”: publicly-supported, that is, rather than publicly-funded. This is neoliberal logic by which our public universities are converted into hybrid institutions partly “supported” by governments and more and more dependent upon private funds. Alberta’s postsecondary education system must be funded by the public purse so that it remain autonomous. Decisions over academic programming need to be taken by academics precisely so that no one — whether s/he be a Finance Minister or a private donor — can dictate which academic programs have “value” and which do not. 

In 2013 the Government of Alberta took an axe and cut Alberta postsecondary education down to the bone. Now they’re delivering taps with the axe-handle that threaten to break the bone — and supposedly to help us all make a “transition” that Albertans should not desire. Albertans should desire a generously funded public postsecondary education system that puts people to work creating Alberta’s future. Oh, right: Albertans have already said that this is what they desire. (See Sheila Pratt’s Edmonton Journal report of 27 February 2015.) Apparently, it’s only the Government that doesn’t get it.

 

 

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Steven Salaita to Speak at University of Alberta, January 13th

Salaita Talks University of Alberta jpg

 

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Docherty: For Sake of Democracy Academic Freedom Should Be “Extended As Widely As Possible”

A few days ago Thomas Docherty, Professor of English at the University of Warwick, published his most recent contribution to the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement. The claims Docherty makes there are directly relevant to the culture of the University of Alberta, currently presided over by a President who asserted in the national platform of the Globe and Mail last spring (in the wake of what unfolded at the University of Saskatchewan) that the members of the senior administration of any Canadian university, including Deans, must act like a “cabinet” that cannot publicly criticize any administrative decision. If the Deans of a university are not free to express their views on administrative decisions and decision-making to their Faculties or the public, it is not just academic freedom that is at risk. As Docherty notes, democracy is threatened as well:

The scope of academic freedom reaches well beyond seminar rooms and laboratories. . . . and its value is diminished if it is circumscribed as merely a matter of academic procedures or protocols. It should be extended as widely as possible; yet, today, it is “managed” – managed, in fact, almost to death. The power of unconstrained knowledgeable dialogue is marginalised; and, potentially, democracy itself – based on authority given by free and open debate – is thereby weakened.

The threat is at its deepest, Docherty suggests, where the administrative ethos of an institution affects what its members permit themselves to think: Continue reading

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“Truly Extraordinary” “Third Pillar” of Alberta Research Funding Axed by Prentice Government

On Thursday, the Government of Alberta announced that it “is simplifying its savings plan by eliminating a special purpose fund and two endowment accounts that were established in spring 2014.”

The funds Eliminated include the Social Innovation Fund. Remember that?

The Government announced the creation of the Social Innovation Fund last spring. The Fund’s creation was met with effusive declarations from University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera. These included the following statement published on the University of Alberta’s news page:

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.18.44 AM

Well, so much for that! A mere eight months after the Fund’s creation the Fund is axed.

And what does President Samarasekera’s weekly bulletin to the University community, issued yesterday, have to say abut this development? Well, nothing at all, it seems. The President’s Bulletin does, however, declare the last week “a relatively routine one” for the President. Continue reading

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President Samarasekera’s Answers to Questions from Arts Representatives to the General Faculties Council

Below are screenshots of President Indira Samarasekera’s official answers to questions posed by Arts representatives to the General Faculties Council for Monday’s meeting of that body. A pdf of the answers is here.

I welcome responses to the questions and President Samarasekera’s answers — especially from those able to respond before the start-time of Monday’s meeting, 2 pm. The “square” here is open to anyone who wishes to engage in discussion of how Canada’s public universities are run. 

Samarasekera to Question from Dueck and Caouette

Samarasekera Reply to Question From Sale

 

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