This is the first of two Arts Squared reports on the Government of Alberta’s “Estimates” Meeting for the Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education’s Budget for 2013. The meeting, officially a meeting of the Legislative Policy Committee, took place from 7 to 10 pm in the committee room on the 4th floor of the Legislature’s Annex. This report is by Professor Laurie Adkin (Political Science). Neither of the reports is exhaustive. For that you will have to wait for the Hansard transcript.
- Mr. Lukaszuk, with the aid of two deputy ministers and three other advisors, took questions from the Wild Rose, Liberal, and NDP critics, as well as from Conservative MLAs, from 7-10 PM. I was present from 7-9 PM.
- Wild Rose’s position (voiced by its Enterprise & Advanced Education critic, Bruce McAllister) was that the Ministry should “show leadership” by cutting its own budget by 10 per cent; McAllister introduced an amendment to the budget to that effect. A Progressive Conservative MLA later commented that Wild Rose proposes the same 10 per cent budget cut at every budget estimates meeting!
- Liberal critic, Kent Hehr, said that, on the revenue side, he could see no difference between the Progressive Conservative and Wild Rose parties—a valid point which Mr. Lukaszuk found hilarious.
- Rachel Notley of the NDP (“Miss Rachel” to Mr. Lukaszuk) recommended to Mr. Lukaszuk that he meet with faculty to try to understand the implications of the cuts from their perspective, and he said he was willing to meet, but not as their employer, as that would be inappropriate. She pointed out that reorganizing software programs like payroll, to cover the entire postsecondary education sector, would require time and resources upfront; if the Minister wants the sector to achieve such “efficiencies,” he should be investing upfront, rather than cutting. She also stated firmly that if the government had wanted to raise more revenue, so as to make these cuts unnecessary, it had the means to do so; the Minister was not, she said “a feather in the wind,” although it often appears that the government is blown in every direction.
- Mr. Lukaszuk repeatedly went back to the “unforeseeable” “6 billion dollar deficit” to justify the cuts to education, and the only response he made to the Wild Rose question: Why did postsecondary education receive a cut twice that of any other ministry?” was that the cut had to come somewhere, and postsecondary education had been receiving increases for the last 40 years, and was better funded, per capita (student) than any other province in Canada outside of Quebec — which, he claimed, is partly funded by Alberta (implying inter-provincial transfers). Moreover, as Minister, he is convinced that efficiencies in administration can be found. He claimed that he had already received many ideas from Presidents and Chairs about where such efficiencies may be found.
- Pressed for examples of inefficiencies he provided few. One was that he had heard about one institution (B) approaching another (C) to ask if it could have a curriculum developed (health of seniors) by C to use in its own program. Institution C had said no. Why, Mr. Lukaszuk asked, should students and taxpayers have to pay twice for the development of the same curriculum? (What is striking here is that, had C sold its curriculum to B as intellectual property, the Conservatives would likely have been pointing to this transaction as an example of commercialization of knowledge.) If I recall correctly, he proposed something like a “curriculum bank” where all curricula developed in Alberta postsecondary institutions would be deposited. He also mentioned “block transfer” of credits and “stacked” degrees. The example he gave of the latter was that a student could take two years at NAIT, then two years at the U of A, and graduate with a university degree. The other example he came back to several times was administrative software: why can’t all of Campus Alberta use the same software, and have its administration centralized? Rachel Notley’s response to this was that the Government had had to drop its own plan to centralize administration for the province’s police forces because it had turned out to be too complex. And in that case, the Government had committed $80 million upfront for this transition to happen, whereas the universities were being given only a cut of $147 million.
- On Campus Alberta, Mr. Lukaszuk insisted that this had been in the works for the past 11 years, with full support from university Presidents and Chairs. It had not, however, been implemented as the government wishes (particularly with regard to the famous efficiencies), and so he is now insisting that it be implemented. He would have done so even had there been no budget cut.
- Mr Lukaszuk repeatedly stated that the government does not want the costs of the budget cuts to affect students, and so tuition fees will remain frozen. He will use “moral suasion” to prevent administrations from raising non-instructional fees to compensate. He is convinced that administrative efficiencies will make costs (fees, quality, access) to students unnecessary.
- In Mr. Lukaszuk’s understanding of universities, there are students and administrators, but no professors. He did not once mention faculty or professors. It is as if students teach themselves. He was uncomfortable with Rachel Notley’s recommendation that he meet with faculty (presumably she meant faculty associations). From this, along with some comments he made, I came away with the clear impression that he does not understand what it is that professors do. He does not understand, for example, that it is professors who make curriculum, course by course, program by program—that this is part of our work. Curriculum is an organic process, constantly changing–not a product invented by administrators that can be packaged and traded. I don’t know about other faculties, but in Arts there is a great deal of sharing of course syllabi among faculty—across institutions. The reason that no two programs are the same is that different faculty teach in them. Their courses are designed, in part, to reflect their areas of expertise. It’s just not possible—at least in the Arts—for two courses in English (to use Mr. Lukaszuk’s example), taught at different institutions, to be identical. It is already a stretch to establish “equivalence” for the purpose of credit transfers, (which we nevertheless do quite effectively). Ultimately, to imagine that NAIT and the U of A (the example he used) would consistently offer identical courses in English (his example) or any other discipline reveals a stunning lack of understanding of how professors design curriculum and teach. Departments have different profiles for a reason.
- Because Mr. Lukaszuk does not recognize the existence of professors, he does not appreciate that the cuts will affect programs, teaching, curriculum, and probably enrolment. Deterioration in these areas will affect students.
- It was concerning to those of us present that Mr. Lukaszuk professed his confidence that in his meeting with postsecondary Presidents and Chairs April 11th, he would be offered many ideas about how to achieve more efficiencies and to implement a more integrated Campus Alberta. He insisted that he had received no push-back on this to date.