Last week Thomas Lukaszuk, Minister of Enterprise & Advanced Education, announced that the Government of Alberta has secured $50 million from the Treasury Board to be delivered immediately to postsecondary institutions across the province to deal with student “enrolment pressures.” The President of the University of Alberta has declared herself “energized” by this announcement, which she construes, along with the Premier, as evidence of the Government’s “reinvestment” in postsecondary education in Alberta.
In Question Period in the Legislature last week the Wild Rose Party had quite another characterization of the Minister’s announcement. In its view, the return of a fraction of the dollars chopped from the operating budgets of postsecondary institutions in the Progressive Conservatives’ budget of 7 March 2013 constitutes an attempt at “vote-buying” by Premier Alison Redford in advance of the Progressive Conservatives review of her leadership in two weeks’ time.
What is really going on here, and what is its fair name?
In response to questions on the issue last Wednesday, the Minister of Enterprise & Advanced Education claimed — yet again — that the March cuts in which the Progressive Conservatives lopped a whopping $147M out of Alberta’s postsecondary education budget were “of necessity,” that postsecondary education is the Government’s “top priority,” and that in arranging for the return of this $50M the current Premier is being nothing but “responsible”:
Mr. Speaker, I have to tell you that this Premier is very responsible. She made a very difficult decision with this government that had to be made at a time when we were in financial restraint, but she also keeps her promise. The promise to all postsecondary institutions was that when the first available time arises where we can reinvest, which is what all Albertans want to do, reinvest in advanced education, we will. Today was the first available opportunity. Promise made; promise delivered. [Hansard, 6 Nov. 2013, Aft.]
The Minister was promptly informed by Brian Mason, leader of the New Democratic Party, that he had with these remarks thrown the Premier “under the bus.” For the Premier had indeed made a promise to Albertans — a promise during her election campaign that she would furnish Alberta postsecondary education with stable, sustainable funding in the form of 2% increases to institutions’ operating budgets each year across a three-year period — a promise that the Minister’s talk of the Premier keeping promises could not help but recall. On the floor and in the galleries there were various responses of the kind that don’t make it into the Hansard transcript. Delivery on a small promise after breaking a much larger one? With the broken promise in no way adhered to with the keeping of the new promise? Please.
But perhaps there should have been more vociferous objections to what came next, when the Minister informed Mr. Mason that presumably he knew plenty more about buses than the Minister did. With that remark, we get to the not-so-sweet heart of the state of politics in the province of Alberta.
Minister Lukaszuk was answering for the Premier, who had resumed her seat, apparently unwilling to address Mr. Mason’s questions for herself. She’d offered only one response, to Mr. Mason’s original sally, in which he had demanded how it is that after so many lost jobs, cut programs, and alarmed students fleeing the province to attend universities elsewhere, the Premier could return a small portion of the cut dollars. Why on earth had there ever been such havoc-wreaking cuts? The Premier’s response:
Well, Mr. Speaker, I was very pleased today that the Deputy Premier could work with presidents over the past six months culminating in today and leading to a 2.6 per cent reinvestment in postsecondary education, and we thank the work that our postsecondary leaders have done to ensure that we are streamlining and having a very effective postsecondary system. I think it’s incredibly disingenuous of the hon. member to talk about systems that have been damaged or destroyed. What we know from our dialogue with presidents and leaders is that we now have a system that is responsive to student enrolment programs to ensure that we’re supporting students, addressing their demands, and that’s what we did today.
This is, unfortunately, par for the course in Question Period in the Alberta Legislature in 2013: the Premier chose not to answer the question, responding instead with an accusation that Mr. Mason’s claim of damage to postsecondary education from the March budget cuts was “disingenuous.” When the Minister of Enterprise & Advanced Education rose in her stead to handle Mr. Mason’s subsequent charge that the Premier was “delusional,” we saw something a little more unusual: the Minister thought it appropriate to remind everyone that Mr. Mason had once — over thirty years ago! — been the driver of a bus.
Seem incidental? The dig is in fact connected to the false ideological claim that set this drama of Cut-&-Return in motion, the claim that the Minister, no Bus Driver, accepts.
For the Minister to cast the cuts that have produced this mayhem as cuts “of necessity” is for him to declare that the Government does not have the wisdom or the desire to see that Alberta’s so-called “fiscal reality” is of its own shaping.
To cut social programs and public goods according to the claim that one is doing what is Necessary — “It was not the choice that we wanted to make, but we had to make decisions to ensure that we could live within our means” — is to abdicate one’s responsibilities as fiscal manager, no matter how one may protest that one is Fiscally doing the Right Thing. [Statement is from debate in the Legislature on 4 November 2013.]
In whose hands, after all, does the power to change “Fiscal Reality” lie?
Students know this.
They are not fooled.
They can see the destruction that is being wielded in the false name of Necessity — and can see, with ease, the ready-to-hand fiscal Fixes. In their messages to the Minister and the Premier delivered by CAPSE (Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education) the week before the Minister announced the return of $50M to the system, University of Alberta students report their sense of the damage that has, is being, and will be done by the Government of Alberta’s cuts — that damage that the Premier denies. Many of them wrote from a moral outrage so deep that a few resorted to expletives to express themselves.
CAPSE has been sharing some of the messages on Twitter. The Minister has blocked CAPSE on Twitter, but it appears that the Premier is not reading the messages either. If she were reading them, she would know that Mr. Mason is in the right.
The messages describe the consequences of the cuts, which have led to the loss of many support staff, over 80 faculty members, graduate student funding, labs, courses, and programs. Students note that they now have to take longer to finish their degrees, and report on their sense that they are paying high tuition for an education drastically-reduced in its access and quality. Students also write of their larger concerns with the consequences of what is going on for Alberta society, now and in both the short- and long-term future, and talk about their concerns for the brothers and sisters coming up in the educational system behind them. They write of the “brain drain” they are witnessing, from both faculty and graduate students, and what the strike on Arts and basic Sciences will mean for Alberta. They reject the Government’s market-thinking as “narrow,” and speak of the way the cuts are impacting their “dreams” of what their education ought to be. One writer demands to know how it is Progressive Conservative MLAs can sleep at night.
Here are two of the more provocative messages.
In the first, the writer suggests the Government’s choices are a strike on those who think.
Another writer puts the matter more bluntly:
“Class War?” you say. “What an outrageous statement! How can anyone write that?” But let’s consider what the writer may have meant.
For whom is the Premier acting when she claims that she is building Alberta, and that said Building project requires her, Of Necessity, to deliver historic cuts to the very system that democratic cultures in Alberta and elsewhere counted on, over the last century, as the chief means of ensuring social equality and social mobility? Advanced education served her generation and at least one generation before that in Alberta, as the chief means of ensuring that, no matter what class you were born into, you could reasonably expect a world of opportunities to open up to you — opportunities that would be at their most creative and widespread if you chose to take courses in the Arts (for then you were choosing not to get a degree, but to get a capacious, horizon-expanding education). To cut the budgets of Alberta’s postsecondary education institutions is to diminish the capacity of those institutions to provide the current generation with the richest possible educational opportunities. To cut them to the degree that the Government chose to do in its March 2013 budget is to diminish that capacity radically.
The question, then, is why the Government would choose to impair a social good for which all Albertans benefit whether or not they go to university. Why would the Government undermine the capacity of Albertans less privileged than those Albertans currently sitting in the Legislature? How might its choice be part of larger global processes that the Government is not grasping or analyzing even as it participates in them? In some wars the victors secure the spoils without having to don any armour or venture on to any battlefield.
To appreciate more fully the ways in which the writer’s charge might be fair, we would want to do some wider reading. We would want to read (for example) the review of two books on the defunding of postsecondary education in Britain that Stefan Collini published in the London Review of Books in late October. In fact, more than one contributor to the #abpse stream on Twitter urged the Minister to read Collini’s “Sold Out” when it first appeared. The Minister would probably be well advised to read the books themselves, especially Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble.
Collini argues that “the overriding aim” of the kind of program to which even our own Government is unwittingly or otherwise committed “is to bring universities to heel: to change their character, to make them conform to market ideology”; to turn them “into businesses, selling a product to customers,” with “profit . . . the only indefeasible goal, competition the only effective mechanism.” (Note the Premier’s rhetoric of streamlining and efficiency in the quote from her above.) The “cunning of government propaganda,” moreover, is for governments “to pose as the champion of the consumer in order to force through the financialization and marketisation of more and more areas of life” in order that those in possession of capital can benefit from the evisceration of public goods. (“The waters around higher education institutions are full of eager predators,” Collini writes.)
We would also want to tie the kind of analysis that Collini offers to the two-week series that the Globe & Mail is running under the title “The Wealth Paradox.” Canada’s national newspaper is purveying basic facts about what is happening in Canada in relation to the redistribution of wealth over the last quarter century.
And we’d want to situate the choices that the Government of Alberta is making as it claims to be “Building Alberta” in relation to the choices of the “Harper Government,” which is engaged, as we all know — for it has stated this agenda quite baldly! — in the dismantling of liberal Canada. Mr. Mason made this link in a couple of different ways in Question Period a week before Minister Lukaszuk’s announcement of the return of $50M:
Harperism is not limited to the federal Conservative government in Ottawa. It is alive and well right here in Alberta. . . . Secrecy, disregard for the law, contempt for the people’s elected representatives, and the sacrifice of anyone who has become a political liability are hallmarks not only of Stephen Harper but also of this Premier. . . . Instead of outlining her government’s plans before the elected representatives of the people of Alberta in a throne speech, this Premier chose to do it at an $85-a-plate lunch at the Chamber of Commerce. The symbolism could not be more clear. This Premier chooses to be accountable to the business community, not to the people of Alberta.
[Hansard, 30 October 2013, Aft.]
Mr. Mason’s point (as I understand it) is that Ms. Redford is making choices — choices in which she appears to align herself with, act for, and guarantee the prosperity of certain interests while social possibilities and mobility are diminished for the rest of us. This is the social problem in which the Globe & Mail is interested, and which it is documenting: the chart below shows the proportional growth in the salaries of Canada’s top-earners over the last quarter century. The CEOs of Canada’s wealthiest corporations, some of which have their homes in Alberta, currently make up to 800 times the salary made by those earning the least in their corporations.
Let’s bring matters “home” in another way. This is a totting up of basic figures for the cuts at the University of Alberta — a totting up, that is, of what still lies before it in terms of budget cuts even after the return of $14.4 million to address “enrolment pressures.”
Although there is some controversy over whether the Minister’s returned funds are returns to base funding (and thus a question of whether they will be in place over the next three years), the calculation here assumes that the $14.4 million will return to the base budget for the entire three-year period for which Premier Redford promised a 2% increase. As explained in a previous post, the 2% “increase” to operating budgets at the University of Alberta would not have been an increase proper, as the University’s costs increase at about 4% annually. A 2% increase would, however, have kept financial matters relatively stable.
I’d be interested to hear how others would tot up the math at this moment, and how, if anywhere, their figures would differ.
All of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions could do a similar calculation. We would then be clearer on to what extent the $50M bandages up the wound. The wound, by the way, could be fully staunched, if the Government chose: as Liberal leader Raj Sherman noted in Question Period on 4 November 2013 the Government currently has — for this budget year alone — a surplus of $722 million.
Is it not time, then, for the Progressive Conservative Party to stop playing games with this province’s postsecondary education system, and stop wreaking havoc with student lives and dreams? Mr. Lukaszuk claims that he has no desire to “micromanage” Alberta’s postsecondary institutions, but the Government’s cuts are an instance of macro-management compelling baleful internal decision-making, all of which is — despite the Minister’s claims — entirely unnecessary. As quite a few University of Alberta students note in their messages to the Government, the Government could choose, if it wanted, to solve the seeming problem by “FIXING THE REVENUE STREAM.” “You know there’s a solution,” one student writes. “Fix it!”
In Question Period on November 6th, Health Minister Fred Horne repeatedly called questions he was receiving from Liberal MLA David Swann “ideological.” But when the Government chooses to put select interests, or the creation of wealth for a very small percentage of the population, ahead of the interests of the majority of the population, what is its choice but ideological? And how is it that it can pursue these ideological choices to preserve and deepen private wealth rather than create common/wealth when even the world’s most famous economists are decrying the very strategies the Government of Alberta is pursuing as strategies that “mutilate” the economy?
The Government of Alberta needs to pull a true U-turn, and restore every dollar of the $147M cut from postsecondary education last March. It also needs to give the system what the Premier promised it during the election, 2% increases for a three-year period. Then perhaps future Governments will have sufficient education to pursue policies based on sophisticated cultural understandings, social thinking, and economic analysis. The point, after all, of advanced education is not to subject us all to market thinking, but to free us into a realm of invention and true innovation beyond the Market’s economic vagaries, social inequities, intellectual restraints, and dream-crushing limitations. And it is the duty of the Government not simply to value postsecondary education as a public good, but to protect it against privatizing influences.
As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in his OpEd “Inequality is a Choice” for The New York Times a few weeks ago, “Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok.”
As it stands, the leader who is demonstrating that he has the moral wisdom, analytic capability, and concern for the common good to manage this province in the best interests of Albertans is the Bus Driver with his degree in political science from — yes, that’s right! — the University of Alberta. Mason got that degree in an era (as I’ve noted before) when Canada was still explicitly committed to postsecondary education as a public good — enough so that it signed on, in 1976, to the UN’s Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, clause 13.1.c of which declares that “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” Mason is a product of that historical moment, a testament to what advanced education makes possible. Perhaps he can stand up for certain social values because he is a product of them. Unfortunately for Albertans, the current Government not only does not stand for these values, it mocks them. You’ll already have seen this, right?
In Question Period on 30 October 2013, the Government of Alberta suggested it found the New Democratic Party’s commitment to a “fully-funded public healthcare” system risible. But it is time for us all to remember what social goods like healthcare and postsecondary education have historically meant to Canadians, and start redefining Alberta in the twenty-first century according to an ideology that supports and nurtures both.
So what’s it going to be, Alison? A nurturing of Alberta for the common good — with the return of the full $147M cut from postsecondary education in the Government’s budget of March 7th as your start towards that? Or is it time for the Progressive Conservatives to let the Bus Driver take a certain wheel? For if your Government is going to keep claiming that it can do nothing more than bow to Necessity, wouldn’t the truly responsible thing to do be to step down and let a government that can shape “Fiscal Reality” in the best interests of all Albertans take over?