EDMONTON — Mediocrity, entitlement, inefficiency and overly liberal — these are the characteristics Alison Redford’s government attribute to the post-secondary sector in the province of Alberta, and likely the rest of Canada.
In its 2013 provincial budget, the Redford government has very openly declared war on post-secondary education, introducing sweeping changes that fall under what has become known as the "Campus Alberta" initiative. Since its release, Minister of Advanced Education and Enterprise Thomas Lukaszuk has been making the case to the public that the changes mandated under the Campus Alberta program will result in millions of dollars of savings for students and taxpayers, and that the current system of "service duplication" among Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions will come to an end.
There is simply no question that post-secondary institutions across Canada have been experiencing a substantially altered landscape in recent years. This comes from a variety of factors, such as changing demographics, the rise of international student recruitment, an increasing number of students wanting to receive post-secondary education, and the evolving nature of how the post-secondary business model can provide world-class education while competing with other institutions.
There has also been a marked increase in the number of students, including those with advanced degrees at the master’s and doctoral levels, finding themselves unemployed at the end of their educational process as less value is placed on degree-based education.
As such, post-secondary institutions have all begun to undergo difficult transformations internally and have, in many cases, been forced to reform into money-based businesses rather than ivory towers of higher thought. Even so, the representation of post-secondary education by Redford and Lukaszuk is nothing short of ignorant and is based on fabricated representations of cost-savings without any tangible proof to reinforce the government’s claims.
The enormity of the changes demanded under Campus Alberta will drastically hurt Alberta’s education sector and is, at its core, medieval.
Let’s call a spade a spade — the proposals being imposed on post-secondary institutions have absolutely nothing to do with improving an educational model, nor are they based on any empirically-tested reformation program that has been successful elsewhere. These initiatives are being enacted for two very specific reasons — budget mismanagement and an impending labour shortage.
When it realized it would face billions of dollars in budget shortfall, the government had to immediately find ways to mitigate the damage to the province without introducing a provincial sales tax. The government failed to find the savings in the K-12 education sector when it signed a deal with the Alberta Teacher’s Association that will save very little money over the long-term. So, in a desperate attempt to appear proactive, the government attacked post-secondary education and knew it would be able to do so, as advanced education is a fundamentally misunderstood sector among the public.
There is no service duplication nor are any of the programs offered in Alberta mediocre. Students are best served when institutions are competitive and have to offer top-tier programming to recruit. The model works when more than one program in a given area exists — not the opposite, as Lukaszuk would argue.
It is also worth noting that the Campus Alberta initiatives seek to ensure that "Alberta’s workforce is skilled and productive ... demonstrates excellence in research, innovation and commercialization and ... Alberta’s economy is competitive and sustainable."
The focus on a skilled workforce is unsurprising, based on the knowledge that Alberta faces an enormous labour shortage in the next decade, and the government’s efforts at addressing the issue have been porous. What the government fails to realize is that these changes will do nothing to assist in the impending labour crisis, but will actually do more harm than good.
The post-secondary education sector is a convenient scapegoat for a government driven by desperation. Perhaps Redford, Lukaszuk and the entire cabinet should take advantage of the outstanding programs in accounting, business and administration offered by the province’s post-secondary institutions to avoid the kind of mismanagement they have displayed to date.
Robert W. Murray is an adjunct professor of political science in the department of political science at the University of Alberta.