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Alberta's public education system needs support, not cuts, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews discussing the 2019 budget. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

The last few weeks have been times of unprecedented change. Collective action to prevent the spread of coronavirus has become a new norm and empty streets are being hailed as a global act of solidarity that will keep people healthy. This time should serve as the final nail in the coffin of Margaret Thatcher's claim that "there is no such thing as 'society,' only individuals and their families." Instead, we might now say that there is no such thing as individuals, only societies and their citizens. At a time when the importance of robust, public health care has never been more clear, so too is the role of education coming into view.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in my home province of Alberta, we were in a state of austerity led by the United Conservative Party government presided over by Premier Jason Kenney. Cuts to health care and education were very much on the agenda. The sector in which I work, the post-secondary education (PSE) sector, received devastating in-year cuts that led to widespread dismay, panic and job loss. What will happen now is anybody's guess, especially as as-yet undefined performance metrics are being debated that may determine how institutions' funding will look in the future.

"Education is one of the best personal financial investments you can make," Alberta's Finance Minister Travis Toews was quoted as saying in the fall of 2019 in The Reflector, the campus newspaper at Mount Royal University, where I have served as a faculty member for over a decade. Toews made this comment as the province was unleashing the first wave of devastating budget cuts for the PSE sector, justifying cutting public spending by suggesting that going to college or university is an individual choice, and that it should be up to individuals and their families to foot the bill.

Although that time feels now like an age ago, it remains important to disagree with Toews' view from today's perspective. Education is a collective, common good, something that we hold together as a public that is, or should be, invested in creating a better world for tomorrow. The times in which we find ourselves very much illustrate the importance of valuing public education.

A second round of PSE budget cuts was announced in the UCP's spring 2020 budget, specific cuts tailored to each institution. Universities and colleges in Alberta were already reeling from these announced cuts as the COVID-19 pandemic began. The budget, passed as the pandemic broke out in earnest, was denounced by opposition leader Rachel Notley as "fiscally dishonest" in its assumptions and plans.

The only immediate mechanism that the UCP has given to PSE institutions to counter these cuts is to increase tuition by seven per cent per year for three years. (The government's other goal has been to have institutions raise their own funds through more private partnerships, alumni relations and donations, but such efforts take time and are by no means guaranteed.) Post-secondary institutions, predictably, have as a result begun raising tuition in order to cover their immediate shortfalls. This move is one that is all but impossible to avoid in a province that also requires post-secondary institutions to submit balanced budgets every year. Institutions have been responding to the criticisms being leveled their way by creating more bursaries for students wherever possible, yet these will not quite make up the restrictions in access that higher costs will entail. These changes are particularly devastating at a time of widespread job loss, when many Albertans already do not know how to cover rent, let alone tuition.

Let us grant for a moment the government's own fiscal rationalization for these cuts and look at the post-secondary sector solely in terms of its utility. Even from such a utilitarian fiscal perspective, the government's moves do not make sense. Education levels are closely correlated to health outcomes, earnings and even life expectancy. We can quibble about the specific details of each of those, but the overall trends are clear from study after study. The reverse also then holds: cutting educational opportunities reduces all of these things.

If the government is truly hoping to have a citizenry that will in the long term enable us to build a new, better world in the wake of the pandemic, then one of the best ways that they can achieve this outcome is by supporting our public sector.

I have a long history of having laboured to support affordable, accessible education and I followed a common path of leaving Alberta for my education. I went to a university that allowed me to spend less than $12,000 per year to live and go to school, tuition included. This was only a little bit more than 20 years ago, and one province away. Twelve years later, Alberta brought me home to work at a community college that was on the verge of becoming a university. At Mount Royal University, I joined a collection of faculty and employees who made that transition. I believe that we serve our students extremely well. Yet nearly every year since I began we have faced a budget cut or crisis. These cuts wear on a sector. When our finance minister announces cuts by arguing for the private good of paying for university as an investment, I lament the failure of collective vision. I wish that my students had the opportunities that I had. It may take generations to undo this harm.

More expensive post-secondary education disproportionately affects those who are society's most vulnerable. Racialized students, Indigenous students, women, LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities and more, will suffer the most from these cuts. High school students who excel academically yet come from poorer families -- potential post-secondary students who do not wish to fall into the trap of student loan debt -- will not attend college or university as a result of these cuts. To argue that post-secondary schooling is a great "personal financial investment," in this light, hurts the most vulnerable and prevents the next generation from realizing its potential.

In the past few weeks, PSE workers -- too many of whom are hired on short-term contracts with little-to-no job security -- have done incredible work to radically shift their teaching, research and service duties in order to temporarily deal with our new environment. They have miraculously and almost overnight managed to take their teaching online or to distant modes of delivery. They have worked with students over email, video conferences and phone calls in order to check in with thousands of learners, and to endeavour to ensure that those students are able to build their own and our collective existences in this new environment. PSE workers are bearing the additional stress of knowing that many of their students are not okay right now -- and in many cases instructors are not either -- while also striving to provide quality educations in uncertain times. Research plans have shifted rapidly in response to the pandemic, and countless meetings have been held over the phone or online in order to ensure that we support our core functions of teaching and research. PSE workers, like their K-12 colleagues, have shown tremendous resilience and strength while under duress, and for that they should be applauded. I am in awe of the work that my colleagues have achieved in this short span of time.

Yet cuts continue across Alberta's public sector in spite of the pandemic. Last month, additional cuts to education were rolled out. Specifically, cuts were announced in the K-12 sector that reduce frontline educational assistants, custodians and school support staff, potentially rendering 20,000 workers jobless at a time when retaining employment is absolutely crucial.

Alberta's financial circumstances -- and Canada's -- have changed dramatically in the last weeks. The road ahead is difficult to foresee. Yet one thing remains clear to me: education is not an individual investment. It is not something to throw overboard in difficult times. Instead, it is a public good that we damage at our collective peril. During a financial downturn, when many people typically look to retool, retrain and gain educational insights -- in this case insights that could allow them to critically, creatively come up with solutions to Alberta's problems -- the well-being of the K-12 and post-secondary systems remains crucial. Current events are demonstrating anew the importance of maintaining a robust, high functioning and adequately funded public health-care system.

This system must be supported by research conducted in the public interest. In turn, research is supported by maintaining educational opportunities for all. Such research and education is the mandate of the education sector. We labour to build a better world to come -- if we can be allowed to do so by our partners in government.

Kit Dobson is a professor in the department of English, languages, and cultures at Mount Royal University.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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