Earlier this week, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced that the Alberta government would be implementing performance-based funding for post-secondary institutions. Under this system, the amount of funding is dependent upon institutions meeting a variety of performance measures determined by the government. Minister Nicolaides claims this will encourage universities and colleges to better prepare students for the labour market of tomorrow. However, the reality is that performance-based funding only incentivizes post-secondaries to see students as uncashed cheques, with some worth more than others.
By connecting funding to outcomes-based measurements, such as graduation rates, student experience, and graduate employment, the Alberta Government claims they will be able to “improve services, increase efficiencies and create opportunities” for post-secondary students. However, these claims are little more than lies; studies show that performance-based funding doesn’t improve graduation rates, encourages the weakening of academic standards, and has little effect on academic outcomes.
The Alberta government should know these failures well, given the poor results of the government’s performance-based pilot project in the 1990s. During this time, the Ralph Klein government implemented performance-based funding while cutting spending for post-secondaries, an approach similar to that of the current administration. The results of the pilot project were disastrous for students. One overview concluded that Klein’s approach resulted in universities and colleges increasing fees for students, reducing employee salaries, eliminating faculty positions, and reducing the overall quality of education given to students.
As of late, however, Alberta hasn’t had an issue with the quality of our schools: both the University of Alberta and University of Calgary are regularly regarded as outstanding schools, both within Canada and internationally. MacEwan University, the University of Lethbridge, and other smaller schools are also doing well, even if they’re lesser known. Given that performance-based funding doesn’t result in better outcomes, and that Alberta doesn’t currently have a quality issue within our post-secondaries, why does the United Conservative Party want to implement it?
While performance-based funding doesn’t result in better education, it’s extremely effective at reducing the autonomy of post-secondary institutions, effectively taking educational evaluation out of the hands of professors and administrators and placing the responsibility in the hands of politicians. In essence, this forces universities to undergo institutional change in order to align with the government’s philosophy on what constitutes a quality education.
Unfortunately, under the governing UCP, advanced education is being reduced to a market, where investments are only worthwhile if they produce “profitable” workers for the Albertan economy. In this market-oriented system, universities are forced to see students as a return on investment, all the way from enrollment to graduation.
The worst part of this system is that not all students are valued equally under it. Under performance-based funding, universities are encouraged to produce students that take full course loads, graduate as quickly as possible, and study “useful” subjects. Under Klein, social sciences and performing arts programs suffered. The disparity that this system creates, as articulated by Ontario Professor Gyllian Phillips, is that universities in smaller communities, often with low-income and first-generation students, often receive less funding than their larger counterparts. This is because their students usually take longer to graduate, as many work full-time jobs while in school or take breaks to pay for their education. As a result, these universities become underfunded while the more privileged students at metropolitan universities are rewarded.
In light of all of this, the injustice perpetrated by performance-based funding in education is not only a disservice to students, but to society as a whole, devaluing education and contributing to the existing dynamics of inequality. Students are the future of our province, and they deserve to be treated as such, rather than pending cheques.