The Wild Pol’s “Investment” in Postsecondary Education: Government of Alberta’s “Estimates” Meeting of 10 April 2013

This is the second of two Arts Squared reports on the Government of Alberta’s “Estimates” meeting for the Ministry of Enterprise & Advanced Education’s part of the Government’s 2013 budget. The first report, by Laurie Adkin (Political Science) is here. Neither report aims to be exhaustive. For that you will have to wait for the Hansard transcript.

Aggressive Investment!

Mr. Lukaszuk began by noting that his Ministry has an “aggressive research and innovation agenda” for compelling Alberta’s postsecondary institutions to bring their “goods to market.” This is tied to its promotion of a “new immigration approach,” and the pursuit of capital to facilitate the commercialization of the research taking place at Alberta’s postsecondary institutions. Mr. Lukaszuk informed his colleagues that postsecondary institutions have been receiving increases of 4.6% a year. (Rachel Notley dealt with this radically inaccurate claim later. See below.) With this investment — “Let me underscore ‘investment,’” Mr. Lukaszuk said — academic staff have been enhancing the quality of life for Albertans. This “enhancement” is not, however, sustainable. “Investment,” such as it is, will now go to “Enhanced Learner Pathways.” There was no explanation of what these Pathways were, or if there were any Maps to their locations, or how many Enhanced Learners will be rushing down them; those present heard only that the Enhancement will come in the form of $75 million in scholarships. At this juncture, Mr. Lukaszuk, who had, it seems, not bothered to time his opening speech, was cut off by the Chair. Mr. Lukaszuk declared himself unperturbed. 

“Moderate” Devastation

To the opening question from Bruce McAllister of the Wildrose Party, “What was so wrong with the postsecondary sector that we have to slash it so heavily?,” Mr. Lukaszuk responded that the government’s commitment to postsecondary education is unequivocal. The province is, however, experiencing an unexpected turn-around in revenue to which it must respond. (Does Mr. Lukaszuk not know the meaning of “unequivocal”?) Mr. McAllister brought the equivocator to a halt, noting for him that he had not answered his question. He demanded again, why did Mr. Lukaszuk’s Ministry need to cut postsecondary education to the degree of 9%? “At the end of the day,” Mr. Lukaszuk declared, “this is a moderate response to the situation in which the Government found itself.” Moderate? As Professor Emeritus Rod Macleod (History & Classics) pointed out in a letter to the Journal on 17 March 2013 the last occasions on which there were such devastating cuts to postsecondary education were 1934 and 1972 — during the Great Depression, and when Alberta still wasn’t selling its oil. And as Bruce McAllister pointed out in the course of the evening’s exchange, with this budget the Progressive Conservatives have cut postsecondary twice as much as any other Ministry.

Mr. Lukaszuk insisted that the Government had to bow to “fiscal reality” as if this chimera were in no way the product of the Government’s own financial policies.

Mr. McAllister then displayed great interest in the details of the budget before him. He requested some assistance in reading these. Specifically, he asked if Mr. Lukaszuk could show him the line where he could see the cuts to Mr. Lukaszuk’s Ministry offices. There was much consternation in the Lukaszuk camp. Pages in binders were rapidly flipped back and forth. Time passed. Then a few numbers were spouted. Mr. McAllister decided he had been more than patient. “Your spending went up, Sir!” he cried. He proceeded to briskly sum up the lesson — if Mr. Lukaszuk wished to cut postsecondary education he ought to show leadership by cutting the budget for his own offices first — and then said, “Let’s move on.”

Duplication Slaying

Mr. McAllister then demanded what evidence the Government had that postsecondary education was so missing the mark that it needed to be subjected to these cuts. Where, he asked, was the evidence that there was any “duplication” that needed to be eradicated? Mr. Lukaszuk would have been delighted to provide Mr. McAllister with “numerous” examples, but Time was against him: he couldn’t possibly do it even if the entire three hours were devoted solely to that activity! Not to worry, though. He assured Mr. McAllister that the “leaders” of the province’s 26 postsecondary institutions would be bringing him examples of where the Duplication lies. This was puzzling news. Aren’t the said leaders dedicated to defending their institutions, not to helping the Minister of Enterprise & Advanced Education take a knife to them?

Mr. McAllister then declared himself unimpressed with Mr. Lukaszuk’s lack of data. He generously offered Mr. Lukaszuk some of the commodity with which he was in such short supply. Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) has done research that proves that Alberta is leading the way in postsecondary education. Why would Mr. Lukaszuk want to deliver cuts to a sector that is so successful? Mr. Lukaszuk exercised himself insisting that Duplication must be slayed. He needed to note for Mr. McAllister that Alberta’s postsecondary institutions spend time developing their own curricula. (In truth, he didn’t use the plural. We noisily correct his error for him.) It is irrelevant to Mr. Lukaszuk that Alberta’s postsecondary institutions are national leaders. The real question is how they would fare in comparison with jurisdictions where postsecondary education is more efficient. Mr. Lukaszuk will not let claims about the excellence of postsecondary education in Alberta turn him from his work as the Duplication Slayer. 

The “Campus Alberta” Brand

Mr. McAllister was tired of this topic. He had only so much time, and he now wished to talk about an Addition. Could Mr. Lukaszuk please explain why in a budget slashing postsecondary education spending there was a $21 million increase specified for Campus Alberta? What was this money to be spent on? Mr. McAllister was informed that $9 million of this would be spent on professors “in priority areas.” Regretfully, Mr. McAllister did not enquire as to what these might be. This would have been very Revealing.

Mr. McAllister pressed on to the question of the “Campus Alberta letterhead.” Why was this necessary? Mr. Lukaszuk was amused. Surely this is clear! It’s necessary for Branding (a word that the Government, like most University administrations, uses unashamedly in regard to a sector that produces public goods, not commodities for the so-called “free market”). Some of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions do a lot of “internationalization.” But they are very selfish. When they’re trotting around the planet promoting their institutions, they don’t talk about Alberta’s small rural schools. The Campus Alberta letterhead will change that. University presidents will have no choice to speak about these small rural schools in their attempt to explain the letterhead and the new Campus Alberta logo to a perplexed Academy worldwide.

When Mr. McAllister introduced his concerns that students’ non-instructional fees were going to rise, Mr. Lukaszuk thought that finally he was going to win a point. How could Mr. McAllister support reducing student costs without also concerning himself with taxpayer costs? Taxpayers trump Students! (Mr. McAllister had to explain that Students are also Taxpayers. He might also have explained how Taxpayers benefit from Students.) Mr. Lukaszuk was nevertheless jubilant. There was something Mr. McAllister did not understand: Mr. Lukaszuk’s responsibility to look taxpayers in the eyes and tell them their costs were down! (Good thing for Mr. Lukaszuk that he doesn’t have to look into the eyes of the past generations of Albertans taxpayers whose investments he is betraying. And can he really meet the eyes of the current generation of Albertan students?)

To McAllister’s subsequent list of the various negative impacts the cuts are going to have, including pricing postsecondary education out of the grasp of many, Mr. Lukaszuk decided it was wisest simply to be dismissive. Bad things could happen. Or! he said — “Or all of the cuts can be absorbed in reductions in administrative costs!” Wouldn’t that be great? (Everyone, write letters to our University Presidents and Board Chairs informing them that Mr. Lukaszuk expects his cuts to be fully absorbed by reductions in administrative costs.)

Mr. McAllister wasn’t having it. Alberta’s postsecondary system needs investment if we are to improve our “capacity.” Was Mr. Lukaszuk aware that Alberta had the lowest postsecondary education rates in the country? (As there is so much of which Mr. Lukaszuk is seemingly unaware, there is a strong possibility that this question was not rhetorical.) Mr. Lukaszuk seized upon it as an opportunity to speak to his favourite topic.  Was Mr. McAllister satisfied that all of the province’s postsecondary educations were as lean as they could be? Was he? Was he? He should be pleased that Mr. Lukaszuk was going to be Finding Efficiencies, and not just in individual institutions. Mr. Lukaszuk would find them in the Cohort too! (Is there an international Efficiency competition for which Mr. Lukaszuk is hoping to win the gold medal?)

Broken Promises

Then — credit where credit is due! — Mr. McAllister showed he really had done his homework. He inquired about a claim that the Government has been touting, that it will be offering students from Aboriginal and rural communities special financial support. Could Mr. Lukaszuk show him the line item for this support? The Assistants engaged in some more frantic page flipping. The Item refused to reveal itself, and Lukaszuk made the necessary confession. “But you listed this as a priority initiative!” McAllister cried. This was a campaign promise! People voted for the Progressive Conservatives because they had claimed they were going to do this thing.

Mr. McAllister was informed that the Progressive Conservatives had been voted in for a four-year term. There wasn’t enough money this year for the PCs to meet their campaign promises — hence, no line item reflecting fulfillment of campaign promise. Simple as that. Mr. McAllister felt keenly that campaign promises can easily be fulfilled, with the necessary effort. This Government might, for example, cut back on its grants to Pepsi and Shell. But Mr. Lukaszuk was not to be fazed. “I’m telling you,” Mr. Lukaszuk retorted, “that when the financial situation returns postsecondary education will be the main funding priority.” (Gosh, where has the Financial Situation gone? Why has it ever been permitted to be on the loose?)

Only Collaborators Need Apply

Mr. McAllister had other quarry. He noted that the Government had broken a more significant promise — its commitment to postsecondary institutions, to which it had promised a 2% boost in funding for each of the next three years. Postsecondary institutions had planned on these increases. The thing is, Mr. Lukaszuk said, he wants postsecondary institutions to flourish. But he also wants them to Collaborate. (No Money to Flourish without Collaboration.) “Are you directing postsecondary institutions in what research to do?” Mr. McAllister demanded. He quoted from the Letters of Expectation. There is nothing in these letters, Mr. Lukaszuk demurred, to which postsecondary institutions have not already consented. (We should all be writing letters to our respective Presidents and Board chairs asking them if they have indeed already consented to everything in these letters.)

At any rate, Mr. Lukazsuk could only be accused of “micro-managing” if he had written a more specific letter. “This letter was written to be purposefully vague.” (Yes, we see that — so vague, in fact, that postsecondary institutions can be subjected at any time to “additional direction” by the Minister.) Mr. McAllister wanted to make sure Mr. Lukaszuk had not lost the point. “We would hate to see their research affected by Government direction.” Didn’t Mr. McAllister understand? “Academic independence” is “sacred” to the Government. But, Mr. Lukaszuk insisted, postsecondary institutions must “make what they develop available to all others.” (Has no one informed Mr. Lukaszuk that our work for the public good is regularly published?)

It was time for Mr. McAllister to rest. He ended by asserting that there was no need for the Government to “take a hatchet” to postsecondary education.

To a subsequent line of questioning from another Wildrose MLA, who enquired how Mr. Lukaszuk hoped to use capital investment in postsecondary education, Mr. Lukaszuk claimed that he wants Alberta to a be “world leader in food production.” After Mr. Lukaszuk subsequently spoke to how students would be prepared for “career opportunities” through apprenticeship programs, this MLA pleaded that Mr. Lukaszuk give him an assurance that he was not going to “hand over control of apprenticeships to the big unions.” Mr. Lukaszuk offered no such assurance. (Presumably, the last thing Mr. Lukaszuk needs right now is to a head-to-head battle with Gil McGowan.)

In the next few minutes, Mr. McAllister, insisting that Government needs to be trimming its own offices first, moved various amendments to Mr. Lukaszuk’s budget.

“Intergenerational Theft”

It was now Kent Hehr’s opportunity to contribute. The Liberal MLA began by noting that with even modest tax increases there would be no need to cut postsecondary education at all. Why, then, was Mr. Lukaszuk engaging in “intergenerational theft”? He informed Mr. Lukaszuk that he was no better than the Wildrose party, a point to which Mr. Lukaszuk responded with great mirth. (How could anyone confuse the Wild Pol with the Wildrose?)

Mr. Hehr demanded to know why — if these cuts were truly necessary — they couldn’t be phased in over three years. No one could question the investment on postsecondary education, he said. Why then was Mr. Lukaszuk delivering cuts that are going to result in an immediate downsizing of Alberta’s postsecondary education system? Especially when most Albertans want to see Alberta spend more on postsecondary education. If Mr. Lukaszuk wants to use deep cuts to postsecondary education as an “enabler” that forces change upon the system, why isn’t he meeting with representatives of the province’s faculty associations? Why are the province’s five faith-based institutions being exempted from the cuts? And how exactly does the Government plan to fund basic research?

 Albertans Not to Be Given Chance to Consent

In his response, Mr. Lukaszuk held firm to his party’s utter inflexibility on matters of revenue generation: “If we were to introduce taxes, that would need to be done with the consent of all Albertans, and we’re not prepared to discuss this at this time.” (Why would the Progressive Conservatives give Albertans the opportunity to consent to tax increases when its Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education can simply ram through non-consensual cuts?)

Mr. Lukaszuk then seized the opportunity to throw out a baffling statistic with the claim that the Government has funded a 49% increase to the system over the last ten years. And now “an opportunity has arose [sic] for us to look at the system and see if we are delivering it as Efficiently as we could.” Further more, “it is a fallacy,” he declared, “that this has to happen at the expense of basic research.” “There are those in academia who choose to engage in applied research.” One doesn’t have to happen at the expense of the other, he declared. Isn’t this, however, precisely what his Letters of Expectation demand and the budget cuts will require? Institutions will have little choice but to pursue — with the drastically reduced funds given to them — research that can be commercialized. Basic research will of necessity experience a great attenuation. Or those who “choose” to do applied research will get funded while those who do not flee for more enlightened jurisdictions where they will contribute to the creativity, vitality, and intellection of other provinces, perhaps other nations.

Mr. Lukaszuk Respects Faculty So Much He Can’t Meet with Them

Mr. Lukaszuk then refused to answer a question about market modifiers from the NDP’s advanced education critic Rachel Notley. To her next question, “Miss Rachel” was informed that she should be careful what she asks for. Mr. Lukaszuk would not be meeting with faculty because he respects faculty so much he wouldn’t want to treat them as employees. Ms. Notley, apparently finding the proposition that Mr. Lukaszuk’s refusal to consult with faculty was evidence of his respect for them, informed Mr. Lukaszuk that if he was going to embark upon transformational change to postsecondary institutions the least he could do is consult with stakeholders. She urged him to consult with faculty. She then noted for Mr. Lukaszuk that his “so-called attempts to bring about administrative efficiencies” in postsecondary educations were going, in the short-term at least, to cost money.

Mr. Lukaszuk decided that the best response to this was a factual error: he insisted that for the last ten years Alberta’s postsecondary institutions have received significant increases. Ms. Notley therefore had to inform the Minister of Enterprise & Advanced Education that the sector over which he is presiding has in fact been receiving zero percent increases, “for the last three years, I believe.” In an exchange about what postsecondary institutions had been promised and what next year’s budget might include, “Miss Rachel” was informed that her crystal ball was no more polished than his, and that Mr. Lukaszuk knows how to grow a flourishing economy. Oh, where to begin with delivering Mr. Lukaszuk a few much-needed lessons?! Ms. Notley chose to inform Mr. Lukaszuk that the Government could, if it chose, fully predict its revenues by generating and controlling its own revenue streams, and its own destiny, no crystal balls required.

Ms. Notley also suggested that the Government’s budget should aim for greater accuracy by including a new line item, a “chaos surcharge.”

She then demanded that Mr. Lukaszuk be “upfront with Albertans” about the huge costs that were going to be involved in the attempt to streamline the postsecondary education around online education, and that he provide even one concrete example of how his mandates for postsecondary institution were going to save money. Mr. Lukaszuk’s “example” involved a vague reference to one postsecondary institution refusing to share a curriculum with another. (Mr. Lukaszuk wants the province to have a “curriculum” depository. Apparently Mr. Lukaszuk does not understand that the “sharing” of curricula involves complex intellectual property issues or that our continual innovation in our teaching means that curricula and course syllabi are always changing. This is one of the reasons that the online education through which the Government aims to achieve some of its Duplication Slaying will result in a dire hit to the quality of postsecondary education in Alberta.)

When “Miss Rachel” was assured that Mr. Lukaszuk shared her sense of the “sacred” character of academic pursuits, she retorted “I don’t think you do!” Mr. Lukaszuk then claimed that with Miss Notley’s “theory” “we would never change anything.” Since Ms. Notley had advanced no “theory,” it is entirely unclear what Mr. Lukaszuk was referring to. Is he developing Government policy according to undeclared theories in his own head?

Mr. Lukaszuk then accused the opposition MLAs of having nothing to say about students. This was patently untrue — each opposition MLA had raised at least one specific concern about students. (You will recall that the record here is not exhaustive.) It was astonishing that this criticism could be levelled when Mr. Lukazsuk had not of his own accord offered any statement about faculty.

The session then got very, very dull indeed, while Progressive Conservative backbenchers posed questions, some of which repeated matters that had already been addressed. The ploy seemed to be to give Mr. Lukaszuk fresh opportunity to retort to opposition questions with platitudes: the cuts are necessary to compel postsecondary institutions to Collaborate, and so on. And it “pains” Mr. Lukaszuk to hear that “young Albertans” don’t have the “skillsets” they need to get jobs. He’s going to help low-income Albertans break the cycle of poverty by getting them to learn trades. (Mr. Lukaszuk has no evident concern with a larger issue: Without an education in subjects such as the liberal arts, these low-income Albertans will have no opportunity to break out of a class hierarchy that keeps them firmly amongst “workers.”)

In the final round of questions, Mr. McAllister noted for the Minister that his cuts are already leading to the closure of academic programs. Mount Royal University, for example, has announced that it is going to have to close its nursing program. Consternation in the Lukaszuk camp: was Mr. McAllister going to trip them up again? The Minister to the (lame rhetorical) rescue! What comfort Mr. McAllister enjoyed as a member of the Opposition, Mr. Lukaszuk declared. He could simply make up facts! Mr. Lukazuk had not heard about this closure, and he had not Approved it, ergo, there was No Such Closure. Mr. McAllister found himself on the receiving end of a series of insults to which he retorted that Mr. Lukaszuk would have his eyes opened when he met with University presidents the next day.

Mr. Lukaszuk then returned to a cherished topic: how his Government was going to engage with Capital. He looked forward to working with Siemens, a company that generates twenty patents a day. With the help of companies such as Siemens, Mr. Lukaszuk was going to find things to patent. Canadians professors are the most quoted professors in the world, he declared. But we need translational research! (Slay Duplication, Make Patents!)

Mr. George Rogers (Progressive Conservative) asked if Mr. Lukaszuk understood that research was a careful, laborious activity that took a long time, and that his positions were likely to affect whether researchers want to come to Alberta. He was informed that for Mr. Lukaszuk to create a “climate” attractive to researchers he “must have access to capital.” There was “money lying on the table”! The location of the aforementioned table was not identified, and there was no discussion of what it means to help oneself to money from the tables of venture capitalists when one is supposed to be running a postsecondary education system for the public good. After much talk about health care, Mr. Lukaszuk claimed that there must be absolute non-interference with another sector, the private , especially where it is engaged in Tar Sands production. He thus laid bare the ideology driving the Government’s savage cuts to postsecondary education. More on that topic, from Ricardo Acuna, here. There is something truly “sacred” to the Progressive Conservatives: helping private, often foreign interests reap profits from our natural resources with limited return in royalties to Albertans even though those royalties would make it possible for all of Alberta’s public goods, not just its postsecondary education system, to flourish.

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One Response to The Wild Pol’s “Investment” in Postsecondary Education: Government of Alberta’s “Estimates” Meeting of 10 April 2013

  1. Shelagh campbell says:

    Brilliant article on the state of Planet Alberta!

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