I write this letter to clarify recent funding shifts in Alberta post-secondary education (PSE) and to raise a voice of dissent against the ministerial handling of education funds. The minister’s tactics and explanations in these matters are bullying and highly motivated toward industry interests. These changes do little to serve the overall project of education as a way to benefit society; rather, the changes serve industry needs and further narrow the economic, political and cultural scopes of the province.
On March 7, 2013, minister Thomas Lukaszuk announced budget cuts to PSE. Revoking a promised two per cent increase and implementing a 7.2 per cent cut, Lukaszuk effectively diminished PSE funding by 9.2 per cent. Across the 26 provincial institutions, a total of $147 million was cut. Programs were closed. Courses were cut. Class sizes increased. Employees lost jobs. Employees who kept their jobs saw workload increases with no pay adjustment.
When these cuts happened, I wrote to the minister to ask for a reconsideration of these actions. His response stated that the province was “strategically repositioning the system to be more efficient, effective, and sustainable so we can continue to deliver world-class education into the future.” He also claimed that PSE funding over the past 10 years, increasing 45 per cent, were unsustainable.
These words sound impressive — particularly sustainability and the need to be parsimonious — yet the total outcome of the cuts, at that point in time, was an across-the-board slash to education facilities and delivery. I would see this “world-class” move in line with other international economic cuts like Greece, Portugal and Spain, not somewhere like Norway.
After claiming that PSE cuts were due to fiscal restraint and sustainability, it was with great disbelief that I read, on Oct. 9, the news of a new grant for the University of Calgary of $142.5 million to upgrade the engineering school. Given Lukaszuk’s explanations, I wondered about the source of the finances. The explanation is that the U of C grant was for infrastructure whereas the cuts in March were from operating budgets.
On the surface, this appears quite devious, but it is actually worse than it appears. Effectively, the minister has cut 26 institutions, across all faculties, all programs, all courses and redirected the money not simply to one institution, but to one faculty and one program. So much for diversification.
Yet, to rationalize this as infrastructure budget rather than operating budget simply raises the question of the future operating budget of this new school. Who will staff and maintain the building? Who will teach courses and conduct research? If infrastructure and operating budgets are separate, would it not stand to reason that we must draw further from operating budgets to make the engineering building tick? This means a greater drain on operating budgets from the all other sectors of the PSE landscape recently damaged by the cuts. A more naked display of industry partisanship is difficult to imagine. The cynicism is acute.
I can, perhaps, do little to change anything. I am simply connecting the dots here, but I think this situation deserves more coverage and context than it has received. Public education is a social good, not an industry tool. It worries me, as I believe it should worry most people, that our provincial government would so clearly narrow the educational and vocational opportunities for our current and future students. The fortuitous resource wealth of Alberta should open up opportunities and possibilities, not shut them down.