Alberta 2030: A Yoke for the University

Marc Schroeder (2021-09-26)

An earlier version of this opinion piece appeared on May 28, 2021 as an invited contribution to Arts Squared, “A Virtual Square for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta”.

What do you believe a public university should be for? To whom or to what are its most fundamental responsibilities? What conditions help it to carry out its functions and to uphold these responsibilities?

On April 29 Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government formally unveiled its plan to thoroughly transform the system of public post-secondary education that Albertans have, for over 110 years, been working together to build. Entitled Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs and identified by the government as one of its “key initiatives”, the plan is presented as a ten-year strategy for building a new PSE system out of the old: one in which the overarching, single-minded goal will be the realignment of institutional priorities according to the interests of employers and industry.

Within the AB 2030 plan, the interests of students and prospective students are cast as those of future competitors in the labour market. Upon graduation students are to have been turned into carriers of the skills deemed valuable by employers. Programs are to be the pipelines that produce such graduates. Research is to be that which produces intellectual property, and the production of property deemed valuable and amenable to commercialization by industry is to be prioritized. The general wellbeing of Albertans, we are tacitly expected to believe, is ultimately derived from the success of private enterprise operating within Alberta and competing within a global capitalist economy. A university’s responsibility is reframed as supporting private sector success, to be evidenced by the demonstration of a (greater) financial return on the investment from both (decreasingly) public and (increasingly) private funding. The government’s role is to affirm this overall direction and to impose the conditions that will transform PSE to that end — that is, to design and fit upon the university a domesticating yoke and to set the institution about its appointed labours in the service of capital.

It is not my intention to provide a detailed breakdown of the April 29 report here (even if I had the time and copious space). For now, I will note that it contains a number of troubling elements, including but not limited to the following:

  • Introducing mechanisms for constraining decisions about institutional program offerings and curricula so to privilege the demands of markets and private interests, and where students are recast as future workforce, to the detriment of a fuller set of considerations vital to education for the public good;
  • In the context of dramatic increases in tuition, exploring the “modernization” of student aid for reasons that include supporting “the needs of the economy”, potentially leading to student aid being used as a lever to steer students toward those programs of study preferred by industry and government;
  • The promotion of industry-serving micro-credentials and the shift to online learning, with the potential that forthcoming provincial frameworks may divert scarce resources and undermine academic freedom and shared governance;
  • In the face of the move by government to withdraw public funding, requiring institutions to demonstrate greater reliance on private sources of revenue, exposing them to market forces, economic shocks, and private interests;
  • Prioritizing research that is valued by industry for its perceived commercialization potential, i.e., for profit-making;
  • The implementation of an intellectual property framework that may threaten the existing intellectual property rights of faculty;
  • A “flagship initiative” to adopt “faculty promotion and tenure polices to incentivize faculty to pursue entrepreneurial activities”;
  • Anticipated changes to the PSE governance model that threaten to further erode meaningful shared governance of post-secondary institutions;

This sample of elements exemplifies AB 2030’s overarching goal to align education and research with the interests of the private sector. This single-mindedness represents a grave threat to a university’s most fundamental responsibilities to its many publics. It constrains the agency of students and undermines critical thinking, which must always question the status quo, analyze it critically, and be free to consider the ways in which the world could be different. It undermines the academic freedom of faculty. It subverts shared institutional governance and the autonomy of the institution, intensifying government overreach and the disproportionate influence of economically powerful external actors.

Beyond the likelihood of upcoming changes to legislation and government programs in order to enact the above, the government’s two most powerful levers for compelling change continue to be its agenda of continual austerity coupled with the new regime of performance-based funding and investment management agreements. The former has been rolling out over the three consecutive UCP budgets since spring 2019 and has already intensified the corporatization, restructuring, and instrumentalization of PSE. The latter, introduced via amendments to Alberta’s Post-Secondary Learning Act in early 2020, can be expected to play an increasingly prominent role in these continued transformations. An almost wholesale purge of public members of university and college boards of governors, in the summer following the UCP victory, has helped to ensure ease of plan implementation. In many cases board members hold high-level positions at private corporations that benefit directly from the UCP’s deep cut to Alberta’s already-low corporate tax rate, so that it is now the lowest among all Canadian provinces (8%) by a wide margin. This cut exacerbated the longstanding structural shortfall in Alberta’s revenues, helping to create an argument for cuts to PSE funding, all while board members have repeatedly voted in favour of steep tuition increases for students and are seeking job and wage cuts from faculty and staff.

It is also not my intention to provide an extensive history of the larger AB 2030 initiative here. Nevertheless, understand that AB 2030 was never a “review”. The evidence is overwhelming that the larger political project’s implementation has been unfolding since shortly after the UCP government was formed in spring 2019, and that its ideologically central elements were determined well before the actual, highly managed “review” that was launched in August 2020. The board purge, consecutive austerity budgets, and changes in legislation that introduced performance-based funding have already been touched upon above. Further, the 2019 MacKinnon Report and then the March 2020 AB 2030 “request for proposals” document (the latter seeking a consultant to assist the government with the project, with McKinsey & Company ultimately being selected) had already predetermined the main themes of last month’s AB 2030 final report. It is even reasonable to assume that the plan was being formulated before the last election. The lesson is that the AB 2030 project is not one that will be countered merely through lobbying or reasonable argumentation (reasonable though the various arguments against AB 2030 may be). The AB 2030 project is not about what is reasonable; it is about power, and it has been long-planned.

The senior management of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions have often proven themselves to be some of AB 2030’s most ardent cheerleaders. The President of the University of Alberta (the institution hit most hard by funding cuts, although all public institutions have suffered to varying degrees) provides just one such example, in some instances going so far as echoing and amplifying UCP government talking points directly. This is problematic but not surprising. The decades-long steeping of academic administrators in neoliberal rationality combined with a university governance structure that makes the president directly accountable to a UCP-appointed board means that senior management cannot be relied upon to mount any meaningful defense of their institutions despite being their nominal leaders. It is vitally important that faculty and others at our own University engage with our own senior management, including in governance forums like General Faculties Council, to press administrators on how they have engaged with government and about the positions they have taken in AB 2030 consultations.

What I am urging here is that faculty, staff, and students take the lead in organizing the defence of PSE. The evidence seems clear that if it is not us, then it will be no one. A demonstration of apathy, fatalism, fear, or individualistic self-interest, as more powerful interests are left unchallenged to reshape the University around you, will damage Alberta PSE in ways that will endure.

Challenging AB 2030 and offering a better alternative requires the development of a praxis founded in both words and action. The former requires a critical reading of AB 2030, analysis and discussion, and a problematization that lays bare the project’s ideology, narratives, and shortcomings. These are tasks at which faculty excel, and it is of vital importance that faculty take them on. It also requires the articulation of a better vision for PSE. Without taking control of the narrative, our wider communities and the Alberta public will be left with the AB 2030 boosterism of institution presidents and UCP-appointed board chairs, as well as limited media coverage, which has so far mostly parroted government messaging. But words are not enough. Hope that mere words will lead to positive change through some mass public awakening or via electoral politics is misplaced. We must also formulate demands through democratic means and then organize for collective action to achieve them. In particular, because AB 2030 is about power, we must have the capacity to wield countervailing power. Our union is the most likely nexus around which this power can be organized and developed. This is why it is of critical importance that our union continues to shift toward an organizing model in which we build collective power, including to deal with AB 2030’s assault on PSE.

In sum, for long-time followers of Jason Kenney’s larger political project and the radical intentions for PSE interwoven with it, the details of AB 2030 that have been publicly released so far contain few surprises. The April 29 report delivers all of the most ideologically central elements that it was explicitly preordained to prescribe from the start. A dominant theme remains a framing of decreased public support as an opportunity for teaching and research to tie themselves more closely to the economic wants of powerful private interests and to little else. Despite being dressed up in the now-ubiquitous neoliberal rhetoric of “innovation” and the “entrepreneurial”, the university underneath will be one that has been progressively starved and subordinated to capital. Over time, it will twist and take new form as it responds to market signals, intensified exposure to economic shocks, and government incentives imposed according to short-term economic objectives aligned with industry demands. If we do not build a praxis of opposition and work toward a better vision now, one day the university may no longer need its external yoke. It will have become the docile and unthinking beast of academic capitalism.