The Government of Alberta has brought down its budget for 2015-16. Five comments on its cuts to postsecondary education.
1. Let’s remember that the postsecondary education system in Alberta is still reeling from the Government’s 2013 cuts, which took tens of millions of dollars away from the University of Alberta alone. The current generation of Alberta’s students will never recover from those cuts. You can’t deprive an educational ecosystem of the tens of millions of dollars that it needs to sustain itself and expect it to flourish. And now the Government has gone and cut us further?
2. The Government’s cuts to Alberta postsecondary education are 1.4% for 2015-2016 and 2.7% for 2016-2017. Do these seem like low numbers to you? Ah, well, that’s the trick of it! Who could complain about a 1.4% cut, you ask? All Albertans should be complaining about it. There is simply no way for Alberta’s postsecondary institutions to bear the brunt of these 1.4% and 2.7% cuts without having to close programs. As Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has noted, this is in fact what finance minister Robin Campbell is calling for. He says he wants the eradication of “low-value” programs. This is the kind of talk by which the Progressive Conservative government would make it seem to Albertans that their cuts somehow make good financial sense. They give us “small” cuts of 1.4% and 2.7% and we’ll be compelled to do what we ought to do anyway, get rid of “low-value” programs. The problem with this bloody canard: the University of Alberta does not have any “low-value” programs. The University of Alberta offers programs that pursue the breadth and depth of human knowledge to equip Albertans to contribute in vital and dynamic ways to the flourishing of global culture in the twenty-first century. When the Alberta government deprives Alberta’s postsecondary institutions of the funding that it requires to meet its objectives it threatens not only a generation of students but the prosperity of all Albertans. What exactly is it that the Government desires of Alberta: a dystopic, dust-bowl wasteland?
3. But let’s get back to basics: Why is the Government cutting Alberta postsecondary education at all? In an historical moment in which life for Albertans is becoming increasingly precarious — see Gary Lamphier’s Edmonton Journal column yesterday about job losses in the province — the Government should be rushing to invest in Alberta postsecondary education. They should have been doing this consistently for the last 40 years, of course. If they had, Alberta would quite simply not be in the predicament that it is today. We wouldn’t recognize Alberta because Alberta would be a splendidly diversified province in which all kinds of creative enterprises are flourishing. It’s hard to imagine what doesn’t exist, but that’s exactly what we need to do. Albertans are currently paying the price for a profound lack of imagination in government policy. What makes the current Alberta government’s choice to cut Alberta postsecondary education so senseless: Alberta postsecondary education is an employer. Alberta postsecondary education doesn’t just put people into classrooms. It puts people to work. Its budget may be, as Paula Simons notes, relatively tiny compared to the budgets for Health and Education, but that budget goes not only to employing people, but developing the intellectual abilities and creative talents of Albertans. Health, Education, and Postsecondary Education: the Alberta Government should be pouring money into them all.
4. But they don’t have any money, you say? Ah, yes, and why is that? The Faculty of Arts’ own Parkland Institute has addressed this matter in depth. If the Alberta Government had followed the recommendations in the Parkland Institute’s 2008 report “Saving for the Future: Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Discipline in Alberta” Alberta would have an $85 billion savings account right now that would be generating $3 billion each year — three billion dollars a year, a significant portion of which could be invested in postsecondary education with all kinds of magnificent benefits and return-on-investment for the Alberta economy.
5. Finally, let’s note the subtext of the Government’s claim that it is cutting Alberta’s postsecondary education system to help it “transition” to “a model that reduces reliance on government funding.” For those of us at the University of Alberta, that sounds awfully familiar. This is what we’ve been hearing for a couple of years now from the administration led by President Samarasekera: that it wishes to reduce our reliance on government funding. This logic is one whereby Alberta’s public postsecondary education would become (as suffering postsecondary educations are elsewhere, on both sides of the 49th parallel) merely “publicly-supported”: publicly-supported, that is, rather than publicly-funded. This is neoliberal logic by which our public universities are converted into hybrid institutions partly “supported” by governments and more and more dependent upon private funds. Alberta’s postsecondary education system must be funded by the public purse so that it remain autonomous. Decisions over academic programming need to be taken by academics precisely so that no one — whether s/he be a Finance Minister or a private donor — can dictate which academic programs have “value” and which do not.
In 2013 the Government of Alberta took an axe and cut Alberta postsecondary education down to the bone. Now they’re delivering taps with the axe-handle that threaten to break the bone — and supposedly to help us all make a “transition” that Albertans should not desire. Albertans should desire a generously funded public postsecondary education system that puts people to work creating Alberta’s future. Oh, right: Albertans have already said that this is what they desire. (See Sheila Pratt’s Edmonton Journal report of 27 February 2015.) Apparently, it’s only the Government that doesn’t get it.