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Nothing good is likely to come from the Alberta government's plan to 'transform' post-secondary education

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Demetrios Nicolaides explains his government's plan to overhaul Alberta's post-secondary education system in a video on June 12, 2020. Image: Demetrios Nicolaides/Screenshot of Twitter video

Brace yourself for the first 10-year plan for the rapid modernization of post-secondary education!

As a general rule, promises by highly ideological governments to enact ambitious transformational change in institutions they have targeted as hotbeds of opposition to their dogma and policies should be viewed with a certain amount of distrust.

When they start talking about drafting a 10-year plan, though, your blood should run cold.

Well, at least Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides didn't use the phrase "revolution from above" when he announced on Friday that the province has hired the local subsidiary of McKinsey & Co., the giant New York-based management-consulting corporation, to carry out a hurried $3.7-million contract to take a look at Alberta's 26 public post-secondary institutions.

Oddly, there's nothing about McKinsey in the news release, only in a linked vendor-selection notice from the government's Alberta Purchasing Connection website. Nicolaides also mentioned the consultant in a cheerful little social media video with soothing royalty-free elevator music playing in the background.

The review was supposedly inspired by a recommendation in former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon's blue-ribbon panel last year, another exercise in deciding what to do first and asking questions later, which presumably why it was farmed out directly to a consulting firm.

Regardless, revolution from above is almost certainly exactly what Alberta's universities, colleges, and technology institutes are likely to get from this effort by a consulting firm controversial for its advisory role in the operations of now-defunct Enron Corp. and work for authoritarian regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and China.

The consultant's final report will be delivered "in late 2020," the government's news release said. Obviously, as with other recent panels and studies by the United Conservative government, that's not enough time to conduct meaningful "stakeholder engagement and consultation," as promised in the release.

No one should be surprised, therefore, if a government led by a premier like Jason Kenney who has clearly decided the fossil fuel industry is the way of the future, no matter what the rest of the world thinks, discovers there should be more emphasis on serving the petroleum industry in higher education.

After all, as Nicolaides put it in his cheerful little video, we must "ensure a stronger connection between labour market needs and education."

"It is essential that we double down on efforts to build a highly skilled and competitive workforce, strengthen the commercialization of research, reduce duplication and forge stronger relationships between employers and post-secondary institutions," he said in his news release. Not all of those things are necessarily what a province in a rapidly changing world needs from its educational institutions.

Nevertheless, Athabasca University president Neil Fassina, chair of the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta, and Alberta Students Executive Council PR director Emmanauel Barker both contributed vaguely cringe-worthy boilerplate support for the government's plan.

Said Fassina, in the release: "In collaboration with this new partner" -- it was unclear if he meant McKinsey or the UCP -- "we have an important opportunity to enhance the role of our higher education system for all Albertans as we overcome challenges and seize opportunities in building a vibrant and resilient future."

Well, who can be against a vibrant and resilient future?

There might be some value to a review of post-secondary education if there were any recognition by the Alberta government there was more than one industry in this world that matters.

But, as Nicolaides said, "we must begin to train the workforce of tomorrow, today."

By which he presumably means, "we're going to train the workforce of yesterday, starting tomorrow."

If so, nothing much good is likely to come from this.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Demetrios Nicolaides/Screenshot of Twitter video

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