Ask a Prof: What does Danielle Smith’s premiership mean for post-secondary students?

Wesley discussed the possible impacts that Smith's premiership will have on post-secondary education in Alberta.

On October 6, Danielle Smith won the United Conservative Party leadership race, replacing her predecessor Jason Kenney. On October 11, Smith was sworn in as premier of Alberta.

Under Kenney’s leadership, provincial cuts to post-secondary education in Alberta were issued. A total of $222 million was cut from the University of Alberta’s provincial grant, since 2019.

The Gateway sat down with Jared Wesley, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, to discuss the possible impacts Smith’s premiership will have on post-secondary education in Alberta. Wesley does research on Western Canadian politics, and is the lead researcher at Common Ground.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Can you think of a certain policy implication with Danielle Smith that students should be concerned about?

First, a lot of bloodletting of post-secondary education was done by the Kenney government. It’s hard to imagine a budget that would make further cuts to post-secondary education without it being an obvious, vindictive slight to students, staff, and faculty.

What I think we’ll see, perhaps instead of a straight cut, is that students taking a polytechnic trades degree or those pursuing post-secondary education in a rural area will likely see more funding. Whether that funding is redistributed from urban-based universities remains to be seen, but the premier has made it clear that she feels rural Albertans are underserved by government programs in general, post-secondaries in particular.

If you’re going to a rural or remote university, or if you’re pursuing the trades, you’re likely to see good news in the next budget. If you’re at a city-based university, bets are off.

Q: Could you see Smith’s proposed voucher-style model of funding affect post-secondary education in the future?

I haven’t seen a voucher model applied to post-secondary institutions. However, I think you could see investments in post-secondary education in non-traditional forms, under the guise of it offering Alberta students more choice.

Anytime conservatives talk about choice, whether vouchers are involved or not, it usually involves draining resources from public and accessible programs, and investing in ones that are either private, or are not as easily accessible by most citizens.

Q: In your opinion, are any of Smith’s plans or proposed policies beneficial for post-secondary students in Alberta?

The premier has proven that she wants to divide and distinguish Albertans into different categories. If you’re in the categories that she favours, then you’ll receive a boost. I suppose it’s possible that rural students will receive some kind of benefit or subsidy.

However, at this point she’s shown no interest in investing in post-secondary education and universities. The best you can hope for is that she won’t do anything more drastic than the Kenney government did in terms of cuts.

Q: If Smith’s proposed Sovereignty Act became implemented, would it possibly impact post-secondary education?

It’s maybe not the Sovereignty Act itself — because nobody’s seen the draft of it — but the thrust behind it is that she wants to prevent the federal government from meddling in what she defines as provincial jurisdictions.

In the late 90s the Chrétien government in Ottawa rolled out what was known as the Millennium Scholarship Fund. This funded students directly, so that they could go to university. But provinces like Quebec and Alberta were upset because the fund was using federal dollars.

It’s not that the Government of Alberta at the time didn’t want students to be funded. That wasn’t the case. However, they wanted to be able to dictate how that funding flowed, and to make sure that funding didn’t work at cross-purposes with their own objectives. Anyways, that’s some additional background to show that there isn’t anything new happening.

The Alberta government could look at the way the federal government is taking a leadership role in post-secondary education — through things like research grants and chairs — and find that only federal objectives are being achieved. The Alberta government might want to create its own programs, to fund research that it finds valuable.

Most university-based research is funded through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), which includes three big federal bodies that send funding to universities. They have established their own priorities, such as reconciliation, equity, diversity, inclusion, innovation, and technology. The Smith government does not see eye-to-eye with Ottawa on these being priorities. Even if they do agree with innovation and technology being priorities, the funding may not be being spent in the way they want it to be.

It’s conceivable that the Smith government may take an approach in which they try to prevent that kind of funding from flowing, or they may set-up competing research grants and programs.

The worry is that whatever new programs they set up will become politicized. As much as conservative pundits and columnist talk-show hosts project that these federal grants and bodies are partisan, they are fundamentally not. They are run by academics for academics, based on peer-review, and they have processes that ensure the integrity of the grant programs.

I have very little faith, based on the evidence that we’ve seen so far, that the Smith government would know how to set up those bodies in a non-partisan way. The real risk is the possibility of university research in Alberta becoming politicized, and certain universities that are known to have similar ideological leanings to the government will likely receive more money. That’s what I hope doesn’t happen.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

This ties to the populism bent of this government, which leaves me even less optimistic that we’ll see any kind of meaningful reinvestment in post-secondary education. They simply have no respect or understanding of what research can do for public policy, for defining and achieving the public good, or for training the workforce of the future.

The fact that Smith didn’t switch up the minister of advanced education, Demetrios Nicolaides, suggests that she is not planning to change course. Therefore, I don’t expect to see any kind of reinvestment in any way.

This extends the pain that students have been feeling, not only in terms of tuition hikes but in terms of reduced services. Unfortunately, this government doesn’t seem to care any more than the last one about those issues.

Lily Polenchuk

Lily Polenchuk is the 2023-24 Managing Editor at The Gateway. She previously served as the 2023-24 and 2022-23 News Editor, and 2022-23 Staff Reporter. She is in her second year, studying English and political science. She enjoys skiing, walks in the river valley, and traveling.

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