DARRYL DYCK, EDMONTON SUN/CP

Alberta’s PSE Crisis

Albertans are giving post-secondary education a failing grade. But government seems oblivious.

By Bill Moore-Kilgannon

She stood trembling at the microphone, perhaps nervous to tell her story to a room full of strangers and television cameras. “I am in my third year of university and I already have student loans of over $20,000 and I have $5,000 in credit card debt. We are not all geniuses, you know. We cannot all get scholarships. Getting an education should not have to be this hard.” As she spoke, I realized this young woman was not nervous. She was angry.

It was 2005, and we were at the first of eight public forums held that autumn by Public Interest Alberta (PIA). The Alberta government had begun its year-long review of our post-secondary education system. PIA wanted to cut through the government rhetoric and reveal the reality. The difference, we found, was significant.

Gaps between rhetoric and reality are common in any field, but in the case of post-secondary education in Alberta, the gap has become a chasm. For years, the provincial government has claimed to be committed to a top-quality post-secondary education system. But too many Albertans have experienced the opposite of that ideal, even though we live in the wealthiest and fastest-growing province in Canada.

The sad result is that many Albertans are denied the opportunity to develop their full potential, and the province is losing out on the opportunity to have the best-educated citizenry in the country. How did wealthy, privileged Alberta end up with so much rhetoric and such an unsatisfactory reality? And what can we do about it?

Rhetoric

“By the time post-secondary students head back in September 2006, Alberta will define a new tuition policy for the 21st century. It will be the most innovative, entrepreneurial and affordable tuition policy in the country.”

—PREMIER RALPH KLEIN

February 8, 2005, in a television address to the province.

Alberta’s 2004 election was a turning point for the importance of post-secondary education as a political issue. The system was burdened, its stresses and cracks were well-established, and Albertans had taken notice. Candidates campaigning for office heard from droves of Albertans about academically qualified youth who could not find a place in the program of their choosing; they heard from students overwhelmed with crushing debt; they heard from voters fed up with this reality.

The government’s review of the post-secondary education system, “A Learning Alberta,” began in June of 2005 with the establishment of a 17-member committee. Unlike the Learning Commission created in 2003 to review K–12 education, this committee did not host open public meetings. It limited itself to private consultations with invited stakeholders. Albertans were invited to respond in writing over the summer months; this process was later expanded to include an online service that accepted comments until the end of October. The whole process culminated in an invitation-only conference in Edmonton on November 1 and 2, after which the committee released a series of lengthy and complex documents that painted a rosy picture.

Members of PIA’s post-secondary education task force were deeply concerned with the review process. The Learning Alberta review committee had almost no representation from students, faculty or non-academic staff. The government documents reflected an unwillingness to look at the serious problems caused by years of underfunding. Finally, it seemed obvious that a review of this importance had to be open to the public.

So PIA co-ordinated a campaign to hear complaints and suggestions directly from the people involved. We distributed 20,000 copies of a background document, “Post-Secondary Education Reality Check,” and set up an online process by which people could grade the government on four key issues (funding, affordability, accessibility and quality) and provide suggestions. We also hosted eight public forums around the province to explore the current state of funding, affordability, access to the system, and quality. The forums were held at Red Deer College, Olds College, the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta, the University of Lethbridge, Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie Regional College and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). Hearing from so many concerned, committed individuals was a compelling learning experience. What we heard was often in stark contrast to the government rhetoric.

 

Reality

FUNDING

“Business decisions are far more important, and educational decisions take a back seat. The crucial question has become, ‘How can we increase our revenue?’ We have to offer programming that has little to do with our mandate in order to generate revenue. But in doing so, we duplicate the diploma programs of other colleges and fail to meet our mandate in the process.” —COLLEGE INSTRUCTOR, Calgary

Throughout the 1990s, Alberta eliminated its deficits by cutting back on social programs, cuts that significantly affected post-secondary education. While the economy was growing rapidly, core government funding to post-secondary institutions was reduced by 24 per cent between 1993 and 2003. The cuts took place during a period of 18 per cent enrolment growth, which further compounded the strain on the system.

People at our forums described in detail the effects of the cuts. Deferred maintenance costs and reductions in non-academic staffing were of particular concern. One forum participant noted that the University of Calgary, given its size, should have at least 30 electricians, but it employs only eight. NAIT is so stretched for space that many technical programs are taught at inadequate facilities with outdated equipment. Administrative staff have been cut back in so many departments that the stress-leave rate has skyrocketed. Faculty spend more and more of their time on administrative work rather than on teaching and research.

 

AFFORDABILITY

“I am a single mom needing to work two jobs in order to afford to go to college. There are too many people who cannot afford to go to college.”—STUDENT, Red Deer

The funding cuts have also had a huge impact on affordability. Tuition in Alberta has more than tripled since 1991/92, increasing more sharply than in any other province. The average undergraduate tuition at Alberta universities is $4,940 (based on 2004/05 levels), the second-highest provincial average in Canada. In a 2003 government survey, only 50 per cent of respondents said they believe post-secondary education is within the means of most Albertans. Students most often cite financial concerns as the main reason they drop out, delay their studies or avoid post-secondary institutions altogether. The average debt of university students upon graduation is now more than $20,000; for college graduates it is $12,000.

As you might expect, we heard about these problems loud and clear at our forums. Students described working 20 to 30 hours a week to put themselves through school. Faculty explained that many of their students are just not able to keep up because of their jobs. The situation is even more complicated in cities like Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray, where student housing is scarce and renters pay over $1,400 a month for one-bedroom apartments. An applicant can be denied a student loan on the basis of having an asset such as a car. But for many people in rural Alberta, a vehicle is the only means of getting to college.

Perhaps most revealing is the fact that three universities and a number of colleges operate food banks. The University of Alberta food bank director told us usage of the service has grown each year since it started in 1991, and it currently serves over 2,300 people.

 

ACCESSIBILITY

“We graduate many fine people from our high schools, and they simply can’t get into post-secondary education, despite the fact that they are well qualified. We have students returning to do academic upgrading even though they have 80 per cent averages.

When they do get into transfer programs in colleges, too often they then can’t get into the university.”

—HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER, Olds

Funding and affordability have restricted who can get into the system. Many well-qualified students are turned away because they cannot find a space. At all institutions, academic requirements have grown stricter. In 1987/88, the minimum average grade necessary for admission to arts and science programs at the University of Calgary was 60 per cent. By 2001/02, the minimum requirement was 70 per cent. The lack of spaces, however, has meant that the score needed to get in is actually much higher. In 2004, the average mark for first-time applicants admitted to the University of Alberta was 83.2 per cent. As a result, Alberta has the lowest university participation rate in the country, at 15.8 per cent.

Time after time, we heard what this means to those who have tried to get an education in Alberta. In many of the rural communities, students enter fields they do not really want to study, while others do not even try to get into post-secondary schools at all. Faculty representatives from NAIT stated that many programs turn away five applicants for every one that gets in. A mother told us her daughter had done very well at Red Deer College, yet was not able to transfer into the education faculty at the University of Alberta. “My daughter would make an excellent teacher, but the system is so overcrowded that she will not be able to pursue her dream.” At Olds, the high-school principal said, “I have been tracking what happens to our graduates for over 10 years now, and there was only one year where more than 50 per cent of students went on to any form of post-secondary education.”

 

QUALITY

“There have been cuts to many programs and it is hard to attract qualified staff to the college because of it. We cannot even get a violin instructor to come here for our fine arts program. This has an impact on quality of life for the whole community when fine arts students have to leave the community to get the education they need.”

—PARENT, Grande Prairie

The quality of our post-secondary education system is very hard to measure. Certainly, many dedicated and innovative faculty members are committed to providing a good education to their students while maintaining their own research interests. But the ratio of full-time students to faculty has increased from 17.2 students per teacher in 1992 to 21.8 in 2001. Particularly in first- and second-year courses, class sizes have skyrocketed, meaning that students rarely get to discuss problems with their professors, and multiple-choice testing has replaced more meaningful essay examinations. With the increasing privatization of services and the cuts to libraries and non-academic staff, the quality of the educational experience has declined in Alberta.

At our forums, we encountered a lot of concern for institutions’ ability to maintain quality. At technical institutes, people expressed worries about being able to attract faculty when salaries cannot keep pace with the private sector. Students talked about the challenges of learning their trades with outdated equipment. We learned that Olds College had sold the 120 horses from their equine program, forcing students to rent horses privately or bring their own. We heard how the privatization of cleaning and other services can result in poor maintenance and dirty facilities. Counselling and other means to ease pressures of education have been so cut back that many students are falling through the cracks. Educational institutions used to provide on-campus child care centres, but these sorts of important services were the first to go with the funding and space squeeze.

 

Results

“What started out as the premier’s clear commitment to students ended up as an exercise in semantics. If they ever truly meant to keep that initial promise of instituting the most affordable tuition policy in the country, this government must reject the disappointingly minimalist language that has grown more and more prevalent and deliver real, tangible relief through an actual and substantial rollback of tuition.”

—SAMANTHA POWER, President, University of Alberta Students’ Union

The actual results of the government’s review of post-secondary education have yet to be determined, although committees have met and reports have been duly filed. After the ministers’ forum in November 2005, three subcommittees were established: the Foundational Learning & Diversity Subcommittee, which examined the learning needs of adults who are underrepresented in post-secondary education (recent immigrants, persons with disabilities, and adults with low literacy skills); the First Nations, Métis & Inuit Learning Access and Success Subcommittee; and the Transforming the Advanced Education System Subcommittee. Each produced its own report and set of recommendations. A final report from the full Learning Alberta Steering Committee was released in May 2006.

The subcommittee members deserve thanks for their dedication, time and commitment. They produced a number of recommendations that, if implemented by the government, really will help make education more accessible for Aboriginal people, people with disabilities, immigrants and adults with low literacy skills. The actual results, however, remain to be seen.

As for funding, in its 2006 budget the government announced increases of 6 per cent a year for three years. This does not come close to addressing the years of operating deficits and deferred maintenance costs. The hard reality is that many of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions are looking at deficits again next year. The new “Access to the Future Endowment Fund,” which currently consists of $750-million, will help pay for some new and innovative projects, but the portion of the fund available to be used in its first year will not even cover the commitments announced for that period.

On the question of affordability, the reality is even more disturbing. The government has not created a policy to fulfill its promise of the most affordable tuition in Canada. Instead, in the final days of the spring sitting of the legislature, it rammed through Bill 40, a regressive measure that actually removed tuition cap policy from legislation, making it a simple decision of cabinet to be determined behind closed doors.

Advanced Education Minister Denis Herard assured students that they need not worry about this removal of the legislative protection, claiming he will consult them before establishing any new policy.

But students were never consulted on Bill 40 in the first place—an irony that isn’t lost on them. They have deep and legitimate concerns about what this minister—or any future minister under a new premier—will decide in the absolute privacy of cabinet chambers.

In a further backward step, the recommendation that has come out of the Learning Alberta process is to set tuition rates at 2004 levels and have them increase annually according to the consumer price index. One doesn’t need a business degree to recognize the plan’s major flaw: if tuition rates were already considered too expensive in 2004, it defies logic to see how this could possibly give us the “most affordable tuition policy in the country.”

Recommendations to change student loan regulations and to lower interest rates are certainly long overdue, but unless the whole question of affordability is addressed, students and their families will continue to face huge debt loads and continue to work their part-time jobs of 15 to 25 hours a week while struggling to keep up with their studies. As one student at the Lethbridge forum said, “70 per cent of students are working. This is one of the main reasons the government can claim that student loans are not increasing. The loan board also reduces the amount they give [employed] students or disqualifies them from receiving any loans.”

On the question of access, the government announced last year that they would be increasing the number of students by 5,000 per year, thus raising it 15,000 over three years and 30,000 in six. It’s good that the government is committed to expanding the system, but will this really meet the needs of a rapidly growing population and economy? To put these figures in context, the number of full-time equivalent spots increased by 15,000 from 2002 to 2005. So, in effect, the government has promised to bring in students at the same rate as in the previous three years.

Furthermore, how the system will be expanded has yet to be clarified. Will these be full-time students or part-time? Will rural communities get improved access? Ultimately the question comes down to this: will qualified Albertans continue to be turned away from the programs that will help them fulfill their dreams—and the province’s needs?

On the issue of quality, the government has offered little more than vague commitments to improve the system. Of course, the massive infrastructure debt will continue to have a big impact on the quality of the system. At our forums, various people who work in post-secondary institutions said it is not uncommon to walk down the hall and see buckets collecting rain water. A quality education system also requires excellent staff and faculty, with the necessary support to enable them to do their important work.

The staff cuts of the 1990s mean that many institutions still don’t have enough people for the current system, let alone an expanded student population. In 2002, a government committee published recommendations on how to attract and retain more faculty, but those have gone largely disregarded. Many of the technical institutes in particular are having a tough time getting instructors, as the private sector is often paying significantly more to keep skilled tradespeople in the field.

So now, 18 months later, instead of being squarely on the road to a first-rate post-secondary system in Alberta, we find ourselves in a quandary. We have remarkable resource revenues, huge budget surpluses, clearly demonstrated needs— and a future that will depend on an improved post-secondary education system. We need more than rhetoric from our government.

Bill Moore-Kilgannon is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta, a non-partisan provincial advocacy organization.

 

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