There are two dynamics playing out in Alberta today that make it critical for us to have a stable and well-funded post-secondary education system. Despite that imperative, the current provincial government seems to be doing everything in its power to prevent the system from fulfilling its public interest mandate.
The first dynamic at play is the confluence of the collapse of the fossil fuel industry with the economic impacts of COVID-19. Recovering from the pandemic would be difficult at the best of times, but in Alberta it will be that much more difficult because of our economic dependence on an oil and gas industry that experts believe will never recover its past strength. Alberta’s post-pandemic recovery will require a significant transition in our economic drivers, investment targets and job sources.
That type of economic shift does not happen without the research, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship that comes from a thriving post-secondary system. We need well-paid and funded researchers working and teaching in well-equipped labs and facilities to develop the innovations, medicines and technologies that will drive our economy forward. We need world-class professors and instructors providing our youth with the skills, abilities, resilience and creativity they will need to build our province over the next 50 years. All of this requires investment in our post-secondary institutions. More importantly it requires an understanding that innovation does not come from focusing on the economy of today or of five years ago, but rather from allowing the researchers, academics and instructors the freedom to question, explore, create, develop and teach without interference, and without concern for how their work will be funded a month from now.
The second dynamic impacting our province today is the reality that there is a demographic bulge of students moving through the system that will begin graduating high school in the next five years. Over the next decade, Alberta will see an increase of between 53,000 and 113,000 18–25 year-olds. This means that our post-secondary system provincewide will need to increase capacity by up to 25 per cent by 2030 to accommodate this growth.
If Alberta’s colleges and universities are not in a position to accommodate those students and ensure that they receive a world-class education from world-class instructors, then those young people will simply go elsewhere in search of their diplomas and degrees. And the research shows that a significant majority of young people who leave Alberta to attend school never come back. This would mean losing our best, brightest and most promising at a time when Alberta needs their vision and energy more than ever.
Keeping those students in Alberta requires much more than just creating post-secondary spaces. Those spaces need to be affordable and accessible. Our institutions must be able to attract and keep the best and brightest instructors and researchers from around the world. Our students need to have access to excellent learning and research supports from well-trained staff working with up-to-date systems in cutting-edge facilities. All of that takes planning, vision and, most of all, funding that is adequate, stable, and predictable.
Both of these dynamics highlight the degree to which our provincial government should be prioritizing investment in a post-secondary system that will guide our province forward for the next 100 years. Instead, the Kenney government has cut core funding to Alberta’s post-secondary institutions by more than $400 million, or close to 20 per cent, over the last two years, and has indicated that more cuts will be coming next year.
At the University of Alberta, these cuts are resulting in 1,200 full-time front-line jobs lost, and 200 fewer instructors this year than last year. Larger classes, fewer supports for teaching, learning and IT, and ever-growing workloads are resulting in existing instructors and researchers looking to take their knowledge, grants, teaching and research to other jurisdictions. It is also resulting in students beginning to wonder if their needs would be better served by attending schools outside of Alberta. The brain drain has already begun, and it is exacerbated by the government’s decision to increase tuition by 7 per cent per year, without any increase to student aid, loan or financial support.
In the 1970s the Lougheed government made the concerted decision to build a world-class post-secondary system in Alberta, and did not hesitate to invest the funding necessary to make it happen. Lougheed’s vision has paid off, with two top-ten Canadian universities, one of the country’s leading undergraduate universities, and globally recognized research including a Nobel Prize.
Today, more than ever, we need to continue to prioritize that vision. Sadly, the UCP’s cuts are taking us in entirely the opposite direction. ❚
Ricardo Acuña is president of the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta and has been executive director of the Parkland Institute for the last 19 years.