With the launching of the official Alberta 2030 goals, multiple groups at the University of Alberta have had varied reactions to the suggested strategies.
On April 29, the Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides launched the strategies for Alberta 2030: Building skills for Jobs, a ten-year plan on re-vamping post-secondary education to focus more on building workforce skills for students.
Months in the making, the minister initiated Alberta 2030 in the summer of 2020 and underwent consultation with post-secondary institution leaders, students, faculty, staff, industry and employers, and community members through town halls, roundtables, and online surveys.
Student leaders pleased with aspects of Alberta 2030
Rowan Ley, incoming Students’ Union president and chair of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) said he is pleased that more than 90 per cent of CAUS and the Students’ Union’s suggestions were reflected in the strategies announced this morning.
“[It] shows the student advocacy does work and our priorities were taken seriously by the government in the development of this review,” Ley said.
Though happy to see student advocacy reflected in the Alberta 2030 plan, Ley said he will still be keeping a critical eye how these suggestions play out.
“We don’t want to celebrate too soon because like with every big strategic plan like this, the devils in the details,” he said. “There is the potential or a lot of these initiatives to succeed or fail based on the funding they get and the detailed regulations that are put into place to make them happen.”
“So, while we’re cautiously optimistic, we’ll continue to be involved in the process as the regulations and funding are implemented to make sure that the initiatives we support are successful in the long run.”
When Alberta 2030 began consultations, there were concerns that it might include tuition deregulation, meaning institutions could raise tuition without any government restrictions.
While tuition has been raised by another seven per cent for the upcoming school year (the province currently has a cap of 7 per cent for tuition increases each year), Ley said that getting the minister to step away from the idea of tuition deregulation is still a win in the tuition arena.
According to Ley, one of the strategies he believes student advocacy is heavily responsible for is the inclusion of open education resources.
“We put in an entire submission on open educational resources, the value they bring to students and the value they bring to the province,” he explained. “We’re very glad to see that it looks like the provincial government will be supporting the development and implementation of open educational resources like is being done in B.C. and the Maritimes. We think that’s a very positive step.”
Another Alberta 2030 strategy Ley believes the Students’ Union influenced is the initiative to “modernize” the current framework for addressing sexual violence on campus.
Katie Kidd, current Students’ Union vice-president (student life), has pushed the university to address sexual violence on campus, ultimately getting the university to hire a sexual violence prevention coordinator.
Kidd said she was glad to see mentions of sexual violence and other aspects of student life in the released strategies, but wished the minister focused a bit more on them.
“I think it’s good that we do see mention of sexual violence [and a] mention of mental health,” she said. “But, I think when we think of university, often people think about the academics and then the financials, and there isn’t enough focus on campus life and that experience when [students] are at university. While I do applaud that Alberta 2030 does make mention, I think it could go further.”
In describing a need for post-secondary institutions to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus, Alberta 2030 said universities should do so through a survivor-centric approach. This approach centres survivors’ rights, needs, and wishes. This was something Kidd was glad to see as well.
“With a survivor centred approach, what I would hope to see is options available,” she said. “Not everyone experiences sexual violence in one way and there’s often not enough reporting options for the survivors to feel comfortable. I think at the University of Alberta, we do have a very strong survivor approach — when it comes to reporting there are quite a few options.”
“I would like to see that across Alberta. Sexual violence is not a University of Alberta problem, it’s a post-secondary problem.”
In terms of when the sexual violence polices actually come to fruition in Alberta 2030, Kidd hopes that the policies won’t stand alone. Rather, she hopes to see sexual violence prevention weaved into every policy coming Alberta 2030 produces.
“For example, will the policies cover students on experiential learning who are not at the university, but who are still affiliated with the university,” she asked. “Will it cover students and professors? Will it cover students in residence? [It’s important to] make sure that [policies are] not stuck in one sort of definition? I think that is very important.”
Pointing out once again that around 90 per cent of CAUS’s and the Students’ Union’s recommendations for Alberta 2030 were used, Ley believes this is direct evidence that student advocacy works.
“[This] goes to show that our work on this has been effective, and that student voices were listened to, when you make yourself hard to ignore, you are able to get change,” he said.
“I think that above all, [this is an] encouraging message to students that while these are very tough times for our institutions and while we continue to have many disagreements with this provincial government, it is possible to make a difference.”
NDP critic sees Alberta 2030 and budget cuts as contradictory
Official opposition member and shadow critic for advanced education David Eggen pointed out what he saw as a discrepancy between Alberta 2030 and the recent actions of the provincial government.
Eggen pointed out that the $690 million dollars the province cut from post-secondary funding has created a “toxic” environment, connecting these cuts to high tuition raises and the threat of multiple university programs being shut down.
“You cannot prepare post-secondary for Alberta’s economic future while still making budget cuts of this magnitude, it’s as simple as that,” Eggen said.
“The minister outlined six goals to this strategy, sadly the biggest missing piece to their post-secondary jobs and skill training strategy is, ironically, jobs.”
Eggen outlined a series of actions the New Democratic Party (NDP) believes the United Conservative Party (UCP) should implement regarding post-secondary in the province:
- Reverse the $690 million cut to post-secondary funding
- Freeze tuition rates for at least the duration of the pandemic
- Stop increases to student loan interest rates
- End performance based funding
Eggen said these asks will ensure that post-secondary institutions and their students are truly able to “drive and diversify” Alberta’s economy.
“Let’s be clear — post-secondary can be the engine of Alberta’s economic recovery, but only if the provincial government is a willing part,” he said. “Commitment to stable funding, proper investments, and improving student access — that’s the key.”
“This Alberta 2030 plan rubs salt into the wound that the UCP has already inflicted on Alberta’s post-secondary schools.”
U of A staff unions unsure if Alberta 2030 is realistic amongst budget cuts
While both of the U of A’s staff unions are glad to see aspects aimed at supporting students, but are skeptic about how Alberta 2030 will work out as the university continues to restructure due to budget cuts.
Lisa Dublin, Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA) executive board member, said the released goals and strategies were “frustratingly heavy on empty rhetoric and short on concrete specifics.”
Dublin said that NASA was happy to see supports for students such as increasing financial aid and providing resources for to address student mental heath, but was also disappointed to see things such as perfomance-based funding remain in the plan.
One aspect NASA specifically took issue with how Alberta 2030 described public funding, calling a line from the document that said public funding, saying it “remains under pressure” and public investment in post-secondary has been “steadily declining.”
“Both of these statements are of course true, but the report fails to point out that this is because the UCP government has made the conscious decision to defund post-secondary in the province since being elected,” she said. “The results of this government’s unprecedented funding cuts are both devastating and obvious at the University of Alberta and other institutions across the province, and the recommendations in this report will do nothing to address the financial crisis for post-secondary institutions this government’s policies have created.”
Continuing on budget cuts, Dublin questioned how Alberta 2030 goals could be achieved in the face of staff lay-off amounting from provincial budget cuts.
“What this government seems to not realize is that all these and many other ideas depend on people to deliver,” Dublin said “So, while the government has laid out some positive initiatives in this report, it’s hard to see how they are going to become a reality at an institution like the U of A that has lost $170 million in funding and close to 1,200 of the staff that actually deliver such important services to students.”
In the end, Dublin said time will tell if Alberta 2030 is feasible.
“We’ll have to see if this government follows up on these ideas with the resources that are required to make them a reality, and based on its record so far, we’re not confident that this government is interested in adequately funding the post-secondary education system this province needs for the 21st century. Rhetoric may look good on paper, but at a certain point, governments have to commit resources to make them happen. “
“Cutting budgets and staff to the bone isn’t the way to create a post-secondary education sector that can respond to the challenges of tomorrow.”
Ricardo Acuña, president of the Academic Staff Association (AASUA) echoed Dublin’s sentiment that the released strategies seem discordant with the budget cuts post-secondary has endured over the past two years.
“It actually seems so absurd to me that the minister is speaking about the future of advanced education in such grandiose and positive terms while at the same time that we’re in the middle of taking more than half a billion dollars out of this system,” he said.
“That seems like a huge disconnect to me — to pretend that everything is fine, and our system is going to be so strong going forward while they’re in the middle of gutting [post-secondary].
As Alberta 2030 emphasizes bringing post-secondary closer to investors and the private sector, Acuña fears that investors will soon be in the classroom influencing what topics professors can teach. He’s especially worried that classes will become geared towards the current job market.
“It’s not forward thinking,” he said. “That results in us educating students for jobs that will no longer exist when they’re finished their degrees and diplomas.”
Acuña also feels that Alberta 2030 may only support research that can be commercialized, leaving social research in the humanities and social sciences behind.
Focusing on faculty specifically, Alberta 2030 aims to introduce faculty promotion and tenure policies that “incentivize faculty to pursue entrepreneurial activities.”
Acuña feels like this initiative is negatively affecting a process that doesn’t need fixing.
“Our staff are peer evaluated the way they have been in the academy for for hundreds of years,” he said. “These are peer-reviewed performance metrics that are used to evaluate the performance of academic staff at the university, and all of a sudden now for the government to want to get their hands in and change it.”
“What grounds and what metrics are used to evaluate our members is really concerning for us.”
BoG chair highlights possibilities of deconsolidation
Deconsolidation has been a highly discussed aspect of Alberta 2030 with U of A President Bill Flanagan calling it an “enormously important step” for the university.
Deconsolidation means the U of A’s budget will become separate from the provincial government. Currently, the U of A’s budget reflects on the province’s budget; both the university’s expenses and revenue are accounted as tied to the government.
Board of Governors chair Kate Chisholm echoed Flanagan’s sentiments, calling deconsolidation “wonderful news” for the university.
“This means we will no longer be subject to the same financial pressures that the province is and it will loosen us up to be able to raise our own revenue from alternative sources,” she said.
“By the time the budget cuts are finished, the amount of our operating revenue that comes from the Campus Alberta Grant will be greatly reduced, so when we have the freedom to raise revenue from alternate sources, we will be able to do with it what we want and it will increase our institutional autonomy quite a bit.”
To emphasize how deconsolidation would change the university, Chisholm gave the example of how the university wasn’t able to use their surplus because it would look like the government was spending money.
“There were a number of things [the board] couldn’t do because they were afraid that it would reflect badly on the province’s finances,” she said. “To the extent that it separates our finances from theirs, we can then have the freedom to do what we want in the best interest of the university.”
Chisholm said the board is still undergoing a “detailed analysis” of Alberta 2030, but ultimately she feels like it’s a step in the right direction.
“Overall it’s much better than it could be,” she said. “We were afraid that the province might consider going more towards… [reducing] the U of A’s institutional autonomy. But in fact, what they have demonstrated is they value us and our contribution… I think they have given us the platform to turn this around and reduce our reliance on the province for funding.”
Alongside consolidation, Chisholm said the board is “quite thrilled” to see more support for students and hopes Alberta 2030 will push the U of A to the forefront.
“We’re looking forward to contributing through a lot of innovation and commercialization to the province’s economic diversification, ” she said.
“We’re hoping that this will mean the University of Alberta’s excellence in research takes the forefront in the province.”
— With files from Pia Co