ATHABASCA – There is a better way to offer post-secondary education in Alberta, but it’s going to take stable funding, and more affordable and accessible opportunities for students to follow their educational aspirations, according to Public Interest Alberta (PIA).
PIA’s Better Way Alberta tour, focusing on that hypothetical future of post-secondary education in the province, made a stop in Athabasca Nov. 8, setting up at the Athabasca Regional Multiplex for about 30 in attendance and another dozen online.
PIA is a non-profit advocacy organization whose mandate is to advocate for public interests and services like healthcare, education, post-secondary education and the environment, said executive director Bradley Lafortune, who opened the gathering that included speakers from each of the three unions representing Athabasca University (AU) employees, as well as Parkland Institute director Jason Foster.
Parkland Institute is a University of Alberta-based non-partisan research institute whose research areas also focus largely on public services like healthcare and education, hence the link with PIA.
“Much like PIA, we spend a lot of time talking about public healthcare and education, but we’re also talking about a lot of the other important issues facing Alberta. We have a lot of conversations and research these days around energy transitions and what is the future of Alberta’s economy. And so, we try very much to keep the public interest in our research agenda” said Foster, who has also been associated with AU as a tutor and faculty member for 20 years.
“And it seems like AU has been in crisis for almost 20 years, especially in the last 10. Some of it has been manufactured either to manipulate us as staff or the government, but some of it has been real, and we've seen, particularly in the last decade, declining government grants, rising tuition for students, and definitely staff are stretched thinner and ever thinner, trying to do more constantly with less.”
That’s hardly uncommon at post-secondary institutions around the province, so a re-imagining of how post-secondary is approached is going to be needed, which could happen by focusing in three areas, Foster said — funding, access, and a different governance model.
In the early 2000s, Alberta was the highest per capita funder of post-secondary in Canada, but a series of cuts between 2010 and 2014, basically erased those gains, Foster went on to say. Then, “modest reinvestments” between 2015 and 2019, were erased over the course of Jason Kenney’s tenure as premier.
“The size of their cuts is mind-boggling — $500 million over three years. That is 26 per cent of the provincial budget for post-secondary in the province in three years,” said Foster, pointing out those cuts came exclusively at the expense of public institutions while private and religious institutions were spared any cuts.
Restoring that funding is the first step along with implementing a budget formula that ensures adequate funding for enrolment growth, inflation and infrastructure maintenance and renewal.
The second focus toward a renewed post-secondary sector is also going require an increase in access to all segments of society and socio-economic situation. A 2020 lift of a tuition freeze in place since 2015 saw revenue to Alberta Advanced Education increase while between 2019 and 2022, Alberta had the highest year-over-year tuition increases in the country.
Those tuition increases need to be rethought with the longer-term goal of eventually providing post-secondary education at no cost to those who wish to pursue it.
The third focus is a different perspective on governing models toward a collegial governance model which will keep government interference at a minimum. He pointed to the UCP appointing “ideological allies” and active party donors to post-secondary boards 40 per cent of the time since 2019. He also noted “Kenney's last action on his last day of being premier was to fire the majority of the Board of Governors of AU to send a message.”
Not that he was giving AU president Dr. Peter Scott any credit, saying, “It's hard to watch, because president Scott right now is making this clarion call to man the barricades in defense of university autonomy simply because he doesn't want to move to this nice town.”
The 90-minute meeting also heard from Athabasca University Faculty Association president Rhiannon Rutherford who went a little more into the idea of collegial governance, saying while she tries to maintain a positive vision, it has been challenging to do so “depending on the day.” She pointed to a significant decrease in morale at the Athabasca campus due to the ongoing strife, not only with the ramifications of the university’s near-virtual policy but ongoing contract negotiations as well, and overall mismanagement in general.
“Many of us are overworked and exhausted, we’ve lost confidence in the university executive, in both their vision, and in some ways, their level of competence,” said Rutherford. “We’re worried about the uncertainty that comes from not only all of these external forces that are acting on the university, but also from what seems like constant and poorly managed organizational change.”
Mike MacLean, representing AUPE Local 069, is also on the contract negotiating team and further elaborated on that morale problem, but the opportunity to stay positive as well and find solutions, like bringing back convocation to the local campus, bringing back staff conferences and maybe having an opportunity to meet president Scott in-person, which has not yet occurred, he said.
“I do hope it settles enough that we can get back to thinking beyond just survival,” MacLean said.
Ronnie Joy Leah, an AU professor, representing CUPE Local 3911 also had a few words, along with several other AU employees who talked about their recent, sometimes emotional experiences.
Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University advocate John Ollerenshaw was also in attendance, along with fellow KAAU advocate Mavis Jacobs, and he said a few words about the group’s ongoing mandate to keep jobs at the local campus. Former Athabasca-area MLA Colin Piquette shared some of the insight he gained in that position as well, saying there are a lot of “circles that need to be squared”, but any solution is going to have to have a firmer base before anything substantive will change.