Review 2030: Shifting Alberta Post Secondary Education

By Lee Easton (2021-02-07)

Since taking on the role of MRFA President, I have become increasingly concerned about the Alberta government’s Review 2030, which seeks to transform Alberta post-secondary education (PSE) into a sector wholly focused on delivering “skills for jobs.”

The Minister of Advanced Education likes to say Review 2030 is the biggest public consultation about PSE in Alberta’s history. From my vantage point, I see a badly organized process  obsessed with secrecy that culminated with the summary dismissal of its flagship Guiding Coalition when it didn’t like what it heard.

Review 2030 certainly has the patina of collaboration but really it is a necessary cover for the government’s determination to place Alberta PSE firmly under its control. The government has not wavered from its plan to make all PSE into a R&D/job training adjunct to industry.[1]  I worry that Review 2030’s skills focus will change Alberta PSE in ways that are detrimental to our students, to our university and ultimately to our working conditions.

What are the big issues?

1) Governance has been a major topic in the 2030 Review process. The government had considered creating sectoral super boards to oversee colleges, universities and polytechnics. If implemented, super boards would profoundly reshape our relationship with the University as an employer and would have dramatic implications for bicameral governance.

In the face of fierce resistance from Presidents, Board Chairs, and students, however, the government appears to have abandoned its notion of sectoral super boards. That said, we should not relent on opposing this idea: the government has shown that even when they appear to step back from a decision, the retreat may be only superficial.

What kind of regulatory bodies will replace super boards in the government’s plan? It’s unclear but regardless the threat to bicameral governance and academic freedom remains ever present. The re-organization of academic Faculties at the University of Alberta, which proceeded by gutting the recommendations advocated by the University’s GFC is deeply concerning. That the University of Lethbridge’s offer to faculty includes a proposal to eliminate academic freedom “in the traditional sense” shows the real dangers that lie ahead.

2) Cost containment and reduction of duplication is another theme. The MacKinnon Report, which declared Alberta PSE had no direction and is more expensive compared with Ontario and BC, remains central to Review 2030’s working assumptions. Of course, Laurentian University’s move to creditor protection on 1 February underscores how Ontario’s cost advantage emerges from chronically underfunding its universities. Wages are often cited as the main cost driver in PSE: the fact is that Alberta faculty are NOT overpaid relative to other Canadian postsecondary institutions and certainly Mount Royal faculty are not among Alberta’s highest paid.

The red herring of duplication needs to be refuted. Repeatedly I heard at the provincial roundtables that far from duplicating programs, local post-secondary institutions were best to respond to local needs, including those of employers. There is a trade-off between strong local institutions and elimination of ‘duplication,” one this government seems ready to make. To be clear, the government will position on-line remote delivery as a way to provide more access, even when they acknowledge that rural areas do not have adequate access to the broadband internet services. Sadly, the pandemic has provided the government with lots of “learning” about how we can do things on-line and underwriting its push to drive digital delivery.

3) Performance-based Funding (PBF) is on the horizon. PBF is an approach to funding postsecondary education has been tried elsewhere and found wanting. However, the one thing that PBF does do very well is to force institutions to connect activities to government-set performance indicators. Under PBF, Mount Royal’s budget will be linked to achieving specific ‘performance targets,” which can include factors over which we have little control,  such as graduate wages.

As University of Regina professor Mark Spooner pointed out at the MRFA Panel on Review 2030, PBF can create a spiral of never ending budget cuts, including to programs that appear to be “underperforming.” Make no mistake: with up to 40% of operating funding “at risk,” PBF effectively makes all postsecondary institutions precariously funded, with predictable results.

How will this affect us directly?

1) The government intends to cut the wages of all public sector employees followed by years of zero increases. While we can applaud slimming down of management structures, the loss of support positions here at MRU are now cascading into increasing our everyday workload. We can expect more pressures on the University to find savings including from programs. Many of us remember the 2013 cuts that saw our colleagues lose their jobs due to program reductions.

2) The relentless focus on skill development works against the broader aims of postsecondary education which are associated with the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The Minister has declared that work-learning integration will be the signature policy of the PSE revamp. We can agree with this but what’s missing is explicit acknowledgement that arts and science education is key to developing creativity, critical thinking and communication skills. These are the very skills that have been identified as crucial to dealing with automation, energy transition and increasing workplace diversity. Our graduates need to have an education that provides the durable aptitudes and knowledge of liberal education to augment particular job skills.

So, what to do?

Cuts to operating grants are poised to continue along with increases to student tuition. The government’s plan to institute performance-based funding is proceeding, even as we face shortfalls due to COVID regulations . The threats to bicameral governance and academic freedom are real and mounting.

We can act to show this government that we support our colleges and universities. More importantly, we must make our case to the public that the government’s direction needs to change.

Here are some actions we can take:

We need to show Albertans that the government’s approach will not serve students or our province well in the short or long term. This is not the right policy at this time.

[1] If you want to understand this perspective, here’s a speech from Jason Kenney in 2013 where he foreshadows the desired outcomes of Review 2030