Alberta government attacks knowledge with cuts to post-secondary education

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to media December 6, 2019. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

The days when many young Alberta men could join major oil companies or wildcatters, or find work as roughnecks and roustabouts earning six-figure salaries within months of high school, are over and not coming back. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, over 40,000 jobs were lost in the oil and gas sector, according to the Labour Force Survey done by Statistics Canada.

The male-dominated oil patch is facing continued retrenchment because of low prices, high costs, and greenhouse gas-intensive bitumen extraction.

Alberta needs a major economic transformation.

A government that prized gender-based analysis and budgeting would make a difference. So would seeking wisdom from a wider circle than those who gave large donations to the winner of first the Progressive Conservative then the UCP leadership races before becoming premier.

Jason Kenney raised over $2 million in funds from donors that remain, for the most part, unknown to the public, but presumably know how to make themselves heard to the premier.  

The province should be building on its recognized education system (students ranked third in the world in science and reading, seventh in mathematics) and welcoming more graduates to the most complete post-secondary system in Canada.

Alberta has two research universities rated in the top 200 in the world. As post-secondary education expert Alex Usher has pointed out, based on population size, only Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Massachusetts do better.

Created over 50 years ago, the Northern Alberta and Southern Alberta Institutes of Technology (NAIT and SAIT) give Alberta two big polytechnical schools that along with big and small universities prepare graduates to contribute to the knowledge-based economy.

In an incomprehensible attack on the foundations of an advanced society, the Kenney government has decided to slash funding for the current financial year (that ends next March) to the university sector by five per cent, with further cuts of five per cent projected for each of the following three years.

With four years of cuts coming, taking inflation into account, 21 post-secondary Alberta institutions (colleges, universities and technology institutes) will lose one-quarter to one-third of their public funding.

Pointedly, the Kenney government excluded the four faith-based Christian universities from its cuts, while singling out Grant MacEwan University and Bow Valley College for initial 7.9 per cent reductions.

Victims of immediate 6.9 per cent cuts are the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. The consequence will be to throttle back the research activities of these world-class institutions, forcing the universities to reduce all spending on items not covered by long-term contracts and denying Alberta students access to important opportunities in the emerging sectors that drive the modern world economy.

The international success of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary was built on generous support from public funds for the research community of graduate students and their supervisors.

Crucial internal funding helped faculty members secure massive outside funding.  

In practical terms, because of the Kenney cuts, general university funds used for scholarships and research grants that finance graduate students' tuition and living costs will dry up right now.

Scholars with outside funding will be cut off from university funding vital for recruiting new graduate students.

Current graduate students will lose the teaching assistantships and lectureships they rely on to pursue their studies.

With core funding withdrawn, Alberta faculty members will not be able to recommend in good faith that international students stay in the province or that new students enrol.

All over Alberta campuses, promising undergraduate students will be asking which universities outside Alberta have scholarly work opportunities, scholarships, and bursaries that will enable them to pursue higher education.

The artificial budget crunch inflicted on the university sector means vacant faculty positions will go unfilled and high-powered current faculty will be looking to leave Alberta. 

Creating the University of Alberta in 1905 was one of the first acts of the new legislature after Alberta entered Confederation that same year. The University of Alberta was a non-denominational, publicly funded, public university from the beginning, a rarity in the scholarly world.

By the 1960s when the Ernest Manning Social Credit regime decided to invest serious money in new post-secondary institutions, through generous public funding the University of Alberta was already a world leader in medical research. For instance, Dr. John Callaghan, co-inventor of the pacemaker, long standard around the world in treatment of heart disease, was lured away from the University of Toronto and Stanford, and made Edmonton a leader in open heart surgery.

The present attack on knowledge is the third in recent years by right-wing Alberta premiers. After decades of postwar investment in the 1990s, former premier Ralph Klein imposed 20 per cent cuts that undermined even the medical research community at the University of Alberta. Fortunately premier Ed Stelmach saw fit to invest significant oil boom wealth back into post-secondary education.

In 2013, more rollbacks occurred that shook the foundations of the province-wide advanced knowledge network.

The Kenney-led attack on knowledge weakens the main inspiration for the future of life in Alberta: the research-based university. No enlightened jurisdiction in the world would ever consider imitating his approach.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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