The Assault on Higher Education

The UCP wants job-skills factories

By Laurie Adkin

The Kenney government proclaimed in fall 2019 that Alberta’s post-secondary institutions were “overly dependent” on government funding—which is an odd thing to say about a public good. Then it declared that the province’s grant to the schools should be reduced by 20 per cent by 2023. The rationale for this came from the MacKinnon Report, which highlighted that the total share of post-secondary institution revenue in Alberta from provincial coffers in 2016/17 was 54 per cent, compared to 44 per cent in BC and 36 per cent in Ontario. The figure for Quebec was 62 per cent, but of course the UCP chose not to take Quebec as a model.

While the Klein governments cut higher education funding by 18 per cent over 10 years, the UCP proposed to cut it by 20 per cent over four, beginning immediately. Post-secondary institutions would be expected to make up this huge loss of revenue by generating money from “entrepreneurial and commercial ventures,” cutting operating costs and raising tuition. The UCP subsequently removed the freeze on tuition increases that had been brought in by the NDP government, and permitted schools to hike domestic tuition by up to 7 per cent per year. In an additional blow to students, tuition and education tax credits were also eliminated in the October 2019 budget.

Klein cut higher education funding by 18 per cent over 10 years. The UCP proposed to cut it by 20 per cent over four years.

The University of Alberta has been singled out for much larger budget cuts than the province’s other post-secondary institutions. The UCP government’s February 2021 budget cut the U of A’s provincial grants not by the “average” amount of 5 per cent (the yearly amount needed to achieve a 20 per cent reduction over four years, or by 2023) but by 11 per cent. By comparison, the University of Calgary’s budget cut was estimated at 6 per cent.

As U of A president Bill Flanagan pointed out, this amounted to $60.1-million, or almost half of the total cut to the province’s post-secondary budget. He protested that “25 per cent of Alberta’s post-secondary students attend the University of Alberta, yet the province has required us to bear nearly 50 per cent of the reduction in provincial funding.” Since 2020, the university has had $170-million of its provincial grant taken away. To put this into perspective, the Campus Alberta Grant to the U of A for 2019/20 was budgeted at $671.3-million (unchanged from 2018/19). This means the university has now lost 25.3 per cent of its Campus Alberta Grant and been told to expect a further cut of $53-million in 2022–23. The loss of $223-million from a grant of $671.3-million will amount to a 33 per cent reduction in funding in just four years.Faced with such massive cuts to its budgets, the U of A has substantially increased tuition and other fees (e.g., for residence accommodation) since 2020. Newly announced fee increases in 12 programs (all in sciences, engineering, business, law, pharmacy, dentistry and medicine, including four graduate programs) range from 17 per cent to 104 per cent. The U of A Students’ Union estimates that the average undergraduate student will see a 23.5 per cent tuition increase over three years. For a government that claims to want to increase access to post-secondary education, shifting the funding base to tuition is a perverse strategy. Rising costs also worsen inequity for students who must attend university away from home, who have limited opportunities to finance their education through work, or who come from lower-income families. Following strong student resistance to the tuition increases, the minister of advanced education announced in late April 2021 that, following the three-year increases at 7 per cent per annum, tuition increases would again be limited to the rate of inflation. What this means for the financial viability of the U of A, which has had its government grant cut so radically, has yet to be determined.

To find savings, the U of A administration has so far eliminated 800 non-academic positions through layoffs and retirements since 2019 and estimates 1,200 full-time positions will be gone by the time the administrative restructuring has been completed. In addition, the contracts of hundreds of academic teaching staff have not been renewed. Retiring faculty are not, for the most part, being replaced. As a result, departments’ capacity to teach various programs or offer graduate supervision in certain fields is disappearing. Even core subjects may vanish from the curriculum if there is no one to teach them. Currently, faculty in Arts who taught US history and politics, Canadian and Alberta government and politics, environmental and social policy and other subjects are not being replaced. This knowledge is being lost to students, as well as to journalists and citizens trying to make sense of politics and policy issues in Alberta.

The administration hopes to find another $32-million in savings from procurement processes and shrinking the institution’s physical footprint—possibly by selling buildings or land. An extremely unpopular plan was announced in the winter of 2021 to demolish the last four historical residences that were built for U of A professors and their families in the early 20th century. Administrators say the university can no longer pay for their repair and upkeep.
To develop ways to provide essential services with 1,200 fewer non-academic staff, and otherwise reduce expenses, the administration hired an Australian consulting company, Nous (previously employed to restructure the University of Sydney—which had also been subjected to radical defunding by the Australian government). The U of A executive appointed selected individuals to a restructuring advisory working group, but faculty and staff associations were shut out of this process.

Briefly, the restructuring model adopted by the board of governors in December 2020 amalgamated faculties into three colleges, each of which will have a new executive dean and an administrative secretariat. The decision to hire executive deans was strongly opposed by the General Faculties Council (the elected body that represents faculty, students and staff, and is responsible for decisions on academic matters) on the grounds that it would create a new stratum of highly paid administrators just as hundreds of non-academic staff are being fired. This structure also appears to further centralize executive decision-making and turn faculty into employees to be managed rather than participants in collegial governance. This was, however, the model supported by the U of A’s president, its provost, some of its VPs and deans, and by the UCP-appointed public members of the board of governors.

The December 2020 board of governors meeting was a turning point for the university. We saw a board dominated by appointees aligned with the UCP’s neoliberal agenda assert its authority over the General Faculties Council in an unprecedented fashion. Many academic staff expressed a loss of confidence in the president’s leadership. And the restructuring model approved by the board is now well on its way to being implemented in an environment of anxiety for all affected. Valued colleagues who performed important jobs disappear from one day to the next, leaving gaps in services for students and faculty and increased workloads for those remaining. In the wake of such radical budget cuts, faculty and staff have little confidence that a university that had climbed its way into the top five in Canada will be able to sustain the depth and breadth of research and teaching that got it there.

The UCP also decided to implement new indicators for performance-based funding. Performance indictors aim, among other things, to link university funding to the commercialization of research, to funding obtained from “industry” sources, and to other measures that undermine academic autonomy and research motivated by non-market ends. The government sought to tie 40 per cent of an institution’s operating grant to performance indicators, with an emphasis on “labour market outcome-related performance measures.” These included metrics such as graduate employment rate two years after graduation, graduate median income, employers’ assessment of graduate skills and competencies, and percentage of recent post-secondary graduates who report that the program they took was worth the cost. Some of the UCP’s indicators call on institutions to influence outcomes over which they have little or no control; employment rates, wages and even the availability of work placements depend on what is happening in the rest of the economy.

As of April 2021 the government had slowed down the implementation of its performance-based funding model. Minister for Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides announced in March 2021 that the government would start by tying 5 per cent of operating grant funding, starting in fall 2021, to the number of “work-integrated learning” placements institutions negotiate with employers. The UCP government then released its 10-year strategy for post-secondary education, entitled: “Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs.” As the title suggests, the strategy’s focus is job training for the anticipated needs of Alberta’s labour market. However, it also seeks to incentivize the commercialization of research, tying support ever more tightly to private sources of funding and market-driven R&D priorities. One of the initiatives proposed in the strategy document is the “adoption of faculty promotion and tenure policies to incentivize faculty to pursue entrepreneurial activities.”

The UCP government is promoting performance-based funding despite the failure of this approach. Considerable research is critical of the outcomes of 30 years of experimentation with the model. University of Regina education professor Marc Spooner recently reviewed multiple studies in an essay for Academic Matters. They conclude, overall, that such models have achieved little more than the bloating of accounting bureaucracies. Tying funding to government-determined metrics has perverse outcomes. For example, making funding dependent on research output measured by the number of publications per researcher per year both disadvantages disciplines that don’t use a laboratory model of research and encourages practices such as republishing the same data in multiple venues.

The U of A has been singled out for the largest cut—$223-million from a $671.3-million grant, or a 33 per cent reduction.

As another example: If increasing the number of graduates who will go on to have high incomes boosts an institution’s revenue, the institution is incentivized to expand its spaces for students in such programs (e.g., MBAs). Meanwhile, faculties whose graduates may go into environmental science, education, nursing, the civil service, journalism, non-profit social services or the arts will fall behind in this ranking.

Even within a faculty, pressures to expand some programs and shrink others might reflect the median incomes associated with various specializations. Attaching funding to such choices amounts to governments deciding which kinds of vocations and careers are valued and which are not—solely on the basis of how much money one earns in one’s chosen occupation! This valuation is completely divorced from the social usefulness or importance of the work performed by university graduates.

If we think this through a little further, to the ways in which gender, race and class inequalities are already mapped onto the labour market and educational opportunities, we see that these kinds of metrics will worsen existing inequalities. Consider that the occupations with the highest incomes (business, medicine, dentistry, law) are based in schools that already have the highest tuition fees and are the least accessible to individuals from low-income backgrounds. Funding based on such metrics could result in revenue being withheld from faculties that are more financially accessible but whose graduates typically earn less than certain professionals. These faculties are more likely to see their programs and spaces shrink over time, thus foreclosing opportunities for young people to pursue post-secondary education. Overall, performance metrics entrench more deeply the existing inequities within universities with regard to the resourcing and influence of different kinds of knowledge, and work against the goal of maximizing access to higher learning.

What does the performance-based funding model mean for the research that’s carried out at a public university? Well, first it distorts the decisions that researchers make about the research programs or questions they will pursue. As we see with the UCP agenda, performance indicators typically reward research that produces commercializable outcomes (e.g., technologies, patents) and attracts private-sector funding. One result of such policies is that STEM research is skewed in these directions, regardless of what researchers and their students understand to be the most important research questions. As my own research has found, this is the outcome of “innovation” funding envelopes for energy- and environment-related research at Alberta universities. While graduate students may be keen to work on, say, renewable energy systems or energy conservation, most of the funding for energy research goes into fossil-fuels-related technologies. That’s where they will obtain funding from research chairs, consortiums and institutes.

Or students may be advised that while they really want to study, say, ecosystem webs in old-growth forests, future employment opportunities are in the genetics of accelerated tree growth for timber harvesting. In other words, to secure a funded position in a research lab, they may have to change their course of study and anticipated career. Better known to the general public will be the ways in which performance-based funding works in pharmacology, biochemistry and agricultural sciences, where researchers receive funding from pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations. The research priorities of these funders divert resources away from or even conflict with other research in areas such as preventive health, the elimination of environmental risks, or advances in sustainable agriculture and food security. Reliance on corporate funding also poses ethical and academic freedom issues and limits public access to research that is largely publicly funded.

A further result of the performance-based funding model is that areas of research that don’t always produce commercializable products, such as the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and fine arts disciplines, see their funding shrink. Yet these subjects have always been critical to answering questions about how we can and should live in this world—and never more so than in these times of climate destabilization, massive biodiversity loss, rising authoritarianism and multiple social crises. Indeed, the combination of all these forms of knowledge is critical to tackling such complex problems. How else can we determine, say, whether it’s in the public interest to deploy small nuclear reactors to fuel bitumen extraction, or create a federal agency to fund green transition initiatives, or strip-mine coal from the Rocky Mountains, or reallocate municipal funding from policing to social services?

One of the primary responsibilities of a public university is to conduct research in the public interest, which means that research priorities must be driven by academics who are responsive to the needs of our communities—not by private interests or governments aligned with them.

Historical memory is critically important to making sense of what has been happening lately to post-secondary education. Higher education has long been on the New Right’s privatizing agenda. Since neoliberal parties were elected to government in the mid-1980s, the percentage of university operating revenues paid for by provincial governments has dropped from 81 per cent to 47 per cent. In Alberta, beginning in the Premier Getty years, annual budget cuts to universities have been the norm, not the exception. The three deepest rounds of cuts were imposed by the Klein governments in the 1990s, the Redford government (2011–2014) and now the United Conservative Party government. Only a decade ago, about 66 per cent of the U of A’s operating revenue came from its provincial grants, and about 23 per cent came from tuition and related fees. In 2020 the Ministry of Advanced Education’s business plan framed provincial funding of 47 per cent as a serious problem. When is a public post-secondary education system no longer public? And what is a university for?

In a time of high unemployment, is it unreasonable for governments to want the post-secondary sector to offer vocational programs that help young people get jobs or that help retrain older workers? Of course not. But this already happens. Of the 21 public post-secondary institutions in this province, 11 are comprehensive community colleges and two are polytechnic institutes. Two former colleges, Red Deer and Grande Prairie, are being transformed into polytechnics. The four comprehensive academic and research universities have professional schools and many degree programs in related areas.

Beyond the idea of “training” for specific jobs, post-secondary education develops a universal set of abilities that is important for employability in every economic sector. These abilities are the focus of an arts education. Employers need staff who can process multiple kinds of information, analyze complex problems and communicate ideas effectively both verbally and in writing. Indeed, many business executives and public administrators have arts degrees.

Perhaps the most important of the abilities that a core university education in the arts and sciences develops is critical and analytical thinking. This encompasses the capacity to grasp abstract concepts and complex interrelationships, to identify the assumptions underlying knowledge claims, to apply logical and moral reasoning, to discriminate between faulty arguments and solid ones, and to consider diverse perspectives on a problem.

Those skills in turn serve us in every other aspect of our lives, including as citizens. As citizens we need to be able to determine which news sources are credible, how various actors seek to manipulate public opinion, which policy options are the best suited to solving complex problems, or which political platforms best serve the public interest. As a scholar of populist far-right movements, I am convinced that the ability to analyze political discourse, as well as knowledge of history, the workings of media technologies and the political economy of media, are all critical to the survival of democracy.

There is no reason to believe that the UCP government’s ability to predict future labour market needs is any better than its ability to choose billion-dollar investments in private corporations. Yet it seeks to turn comprehensive universities into market-driven producers of workers and technologies. Was any of this necessary? Not according to social scientists like me, who have argued for fiscal reform and reinvestment in public goods. But this is not the kind of policy work that the UCP’s old-new post-secondary agenda seeks to incentivize.

Universities do need reforming, to better serve the public interest and to be more accountable to those who work in them as well as to citizens. But the UCP-imposed restructuring of the University of Alberta and post-secondary education as a whole is anything but democratizing. Alberta’s system has been destabilized, demoralized and diminished.

Laurie Adkin is a long-time professor of political science at the U of A. Story feedback: letters@albertaviews.ca

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