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Alberta Election 2023: Institutional issues

The Gateway interviewed candidates from four major parties running in the provincial election to discuss their party's plans for post-secondary institutional issues.

As a part of the 2023 Alberta Election coverage, The Gateway is publishing a three-part series about issues that impact students. This is the second article in the series. The first can be found here.

The 2023 Alberta Election will end on May 29, when voters will vote for the candidate of their choice.

The Gateway sat down with candidates from the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP), the Alberta Liberal Party, the Alberta Party, and the Green Party of Alberta (GPA) to talk about institutional issues in post-secondary education. Additionally, The Gateway sat down with Chris Beasley, the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) vice-president (external), and Quinn Benders, president of the Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA), to discuss the impacts of institutional policies on higher-education.

The Gateway reached out to the United Conservative Party (UCP) for an interview, but they failed to respond in time for publication.

Would parties change how the provincial government appoints Board of Governors representatives?

David Eggen, the NDP candidate for Edmonton-North West, said that while there is an appointment process for the Board of Governors (BoG) in place, the party would “demonstrate stability and common sense.” A NDP government would prioritize stability over “turning everything upside down,” Eggen added.

“We want to make sure that that’s an equitable process that reflects the diversity and composition of our overall population in the province,” Eggen said. “I think the main thing is to reward competence to reflect diversity and to ensure stability.”

John Roggeveen, leader of the Alberta Liberal Party and candidate for Calgary-Lougheed, said that BoG representatives shouldn’t be “political hacks.” He added that the process should not be political.

“I can’t specifically name any particular person that I think has acted improperly. But, from what I can see at a distance, the government has stacked the board with appointees that will pursue dances that are in line with the government’s view.”

Roggeveen said that while the party “probably won’t get elected,” there is a possibility of a minority government. If that is the case, the party would support looking at the current board and ensuring they’re acting in the best interest of the university.

Myles Chykerda, the Alberta Party candidate for Lacombe-Ponoka, said the party would examine the governance structures at post-secondary institutions. The governance structure is meant to be a dual-governance model, but that has become “lop-sided,” he said.

“It’s essentially whatever the government wants to do. That’s taken away the academic freedom of our post-secondary insitutes,” Chykerda added.

An Alberta Party government would review the appointment process, Chykerda said. But, they would not necessarily rescind the appointments made by the UCP government. Instead, those currently on the board would have to re-apply and be chosen based on their credentials and abilities, not “connections to the minister.”

Jordan Wilkie, leader of the GPA, said the party does not currently have a policy regarding the BoG appointment process. But, the party does not believe the appointments should be political. A “neutral professional committee” would be created to review the process independently.

“We need a neutral board to ensure that we are all doing what’s right for students,” he added.

UASU vice-president (external) Beasley said newly-appointed representatives to BoG need to be ready to serve in the university’s best interests.

“That can look like different things. But, really just making sure that it’s folks that are competent, that are willing to listen to the student voice, and that are willing to work with our undergraduate representative and presidential representative.”

According to Beasley, BoG representatives need to connect to the “student heartbeat that they’re representing,” especially as complicated decisions are made.

Beasley also said that no matter what party is elected, he will advocate for students in the appointment of BoG representatives. To him, this means showing the new government that the UASU is a reliable stakeholder that is trusted by students.

“What defines how much of a say we have in the process, and how much access we can have to that process, is how we shape, manage, and mold that relationship with the Ministry of Advanced Education,” Beasley added.

NASA President Benders said that the appointment of BoG representatives by the UCP government in 2019 was “disappointing.” In the future, he hopes to see people appointed who are “stronger advocates for proper public funding for the university,” regardless of which party wins the provincial election.

Benders added that there should be a focus on appointing those who have experience in governance and a “strong track record in post-secondary.”

“Not necessarily people that are more interested in toeing any particular party line with regard to policy that … the provincial government likes to implement.”

How would parties approach performance-based funding?

On January 20, 2020, the UCP government announced that post-secondary funding would be tied to performance metrics. The indicators, monitored by the provincial government, include areas of specialization, program mandates, research and scholarly activities, and more.

Eggen said that the NDP would remove the performance-based funding model if elected. He added that post-secondary institutions already have systems in place to ensure high standards and performances are met. The model brought in by the UCP was “derivative and not helpful,” Eggen said.

A NDP government would “respect” post-secondary institutions to set and meet their own standards.

“This whole performance-based funding model the UCP brought forward was nothing but another way to make cuts,” Eggen added.

Roggeveen said the performance-based funding model is “disingenuous” and “not appropriate.” If elected, the Alberta Liberal Party would remove the model and increase funding to post-secondary institutions back to the “levels that existed before.”

“We have the money to do it. It’s not like the province is impoverished,” Roggeveen added. “We need to have strong universities, strong programs, and be able to pay professors.”

The Alberta Party would “absolutely not” keep the performance-based funding model, Chykerda said. He said the systems imposed by the government to measure the performance of a university do not take qualities that aren’t “quantifiable,” into account.

As well, the government expects post-secondary institutions to collect and submit this data.

“The ministry is expecting the institutions to do the work … at the same time that they’re cutting our budgets. We’ve lost 1050 staff at the U of A, and they’re throwing more red tape on us,” he said.

If elected, the GPA would tie funding to growth, since tuition would be free for students, Wilkie said. He added that funding models should focus on the size of the student body and ensuring that the quality of education is high.

“We should always be expecting the greatest quality from our institutions. Especially when they’re well-funded and they have the resources that they need.”

Beasley said he wants to continue advocating for a “reciprocal relationship” with the newly-elected provincial government. This way, the government sets targets for institutions to reach, but also helps them reach these goals, he said.

He added these metrics are set at specific goals because the institution and the government are aligned in wanting them accomplished. These goals are ones that both the government and post-secondary institutions want to meet, Beasley said.

“Recognizing that it’s not just a target that is set from on high, but something where we’re both working towards the same goals.”

Would parties implement measures to improve working conditions for non-academic staff and faculty that have been affected by budget cuts?

Since 2019, the U of A has faced $222 million in budget cuts from the provincial government. As a result, the U of A underwent academic restructuring, and a reduction of 1,050 staff.

If elected, a NDP government would provide long-term and stable funding to repair some of the damages caused by the UCP government’s budget cuts, Eggen said. He added that the party would look to reduce the “precarious employment of some workers” at post-secondary institutions.

“The heart of any school is its faculty and staff that make it work,” Eggen said. “And the instability and animosity that the UCP directed to people working in our colleges, universities, and polytechnics just has to stop.”

If elected, the Alberta Liberal Party would reverse budget cuts. This would alleviate a lot of issues for non-academic staff, Roggeveen said. He added that universities would be able to rehire those who lost their jobs, as well.

“When you have less staff, you’ve got more burdens on the people that are left.”

Chykerda said that, if elected, restoring funding to post-secondary institutions would be the first step. The next step would be ensuring that that money is going toward paying those that are providing education to students.

There is a balance between independence for post-secondary and “making sure public dollars are spent wisely and effectively,” he added. But, there is no longer efficiency at the U of A, Chykerda said.

“I am honestly flabbergasted by this new model we’ve had imposed at the U of A. It seems all we’ve done is add a new layer of bureaucracy,” he said.

If elected, the GPA would work with unions to ensure that staff are “properly valued and compensated,” Wilkie said.

Benders said that he wants to see cuts “completely reversed” and an increase based on inflation with a newly-elected government. Academic restructuring was meant to foster efficiency, but the loss of staff at the U of A has seen “increased workloads at all levels,” Benders said.

“Ultimately, we need more funding to the university so there can be more support staff hired to support students and faculty — because all of those impacts are felt key by faculty,” he added. “They’re taking on more administrative work. They’re taking on more direct work. In laboratories, their conditions have worsened. With staff, we have a real crisis.”

“Regardless of what is said about the set restructuring, we universally understand that staff have increased their workloads. That’s also in an environment of job insecurity because of all the cuts that we’ve experienced.”

Even though stakeholders on campus have a “vested interest in the success of this institution,” Benders said these concerns should be addressed immediately.

“We may be dealing with it the best we can … but I think that this has to happen right away. There’s workload deficits, infrastructure deficits, and deficits of support that are ongoing. They should be addressed immediately.”

Would parties make changes to the current funding for targeted enrolment expansion?

On February 28, the Government of Alberta released Budget 2023, which allocated $111 million toward targeted enrolment expansion. Increases in funding went to high-demand programs to expand enrolment.

Eggen said there were some “good ideas” in Budget 2023, in regards to enhancing programs and adding more spots to high-demand programs — such as adding more funding to health-care programs. But, he added that the provincial government can’t “dictate” what institutions in other communities need.

“I think we do need to review with institutions and individual faculties to make sure that what we’re trying to promote is, in fact, what is needed,” Eggen said.

Roggeveen said that increasing funding to high-demand programs “makes sense.” But, “diverting funds” from other programs shouldn’t be the solution to subsidizing high-demand ones, he said.

An Alberta Party government would want to see spaces increased “across the board,” Chykerda said. He added that targeted enrolment expansion micromanages post-secondary education.

“If you want to study in humanities or social sciences, they’re just completely left out of stuff. There is a firm commitment from the Alberta Party to support the humanities and social sciences,” he said. “It’s not just about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), nursing, doctors, etc. It’s about everything within our institutions at the U of A.”

Wilkie said that enrolment shouldn’t be a “partisan issue.” Instead, the GPA would have a “neutral review board guide such a program.” Otherwise, the government isn’t acting in the best interest of students, he said.

“I understand that there’s a lot of jobs that we need to focus on,” Wilkie added. “But with one political party making that decision, there could be a conflict of interest.”

Beasley said that as the Albertan population grows, more people will be enrolling in universities across the province. But, the current targeted enrolment expansion plan “lags behind what people are already seeing.”

“No matter what government is elected, we need support so that we can actually support those students,” he added. “And, make sure that when they come to university, we’re not seeing a decline in the quality of our [education] as we stretch it over more students.”

Would parties continue the practice of requiring free speech reporting from post-secondary institutions?

On February 3, the UCP government announced that it would require post-secondary institutions to provide annual reports to the Minister of Advanced Education in their effort to protect free speech on campuses.

The announcement followed protests by students at the University of Lethbridge regarding a planned speech by a controversial professor.

According to Eggen, post-secondary institutions can build their own programming when it comes to encouraging free speech on campuses, which they have done quite well. He added that a NDP government would “respect the integrity of the institution to do so.”

“The UCP wading into the free speech question was, at best, just trying to divert attention from more pressing needs. And, at worst, just trying to create divisions for their own political purposes.”

Roggeveen said that the Alberta Liberal Party would reverse the policy. As well, they would allow universities to decide who is allowed to speak on their campuses. Additionally, he said that interference from the government can “tip the balance the wrong way.”

“I think it’s inappropriate for the government to be sticking its fingers into this issue. This is an issue that the university should decide for itself,” he added.

Chykerda said that free speech reporting can “go away, because it’s performative nonsense.”

“In 20 years of being around the U of A, I’ve never seen an issue of anyone not being able to express their ideas,” he added. “It’s never been a problem at any of our universities, polytechnics, or colleges.”

Wilkie said that this policy would need a review. “Students have the right to protest, especially when it’s something that they deal with in their everyday lives,” he said.

The U of A is an institution that supports freedom of speech, Beasley said. He added that there are guidelines in place that ensure free speech is protected and “robust.”

“We have even more robust charter rights that protect us from hate speech, that protect us from discrimination,” Beasley said. “They protect us from a lot of those other particularly nasty consequences, when things are no longer free speech or [don’t] contribute to academic discourse.”

“We’re showing people how the stuff that they would engage with us on makes it directly to the ears of power,” UASU vice-president (external) says

The Gateway asked Beasley about the impacts of institutional policies on the U of A specifically, in addition to the questions asked to candidates.

Beasley said that as seat capacity grows, services offered at the U of A will be under pressure. As these pressures continue, gaps will start to show, he added.

“[The UASU] will have to remain responsive and continue to communicate what those gaps are to the government. This will require direct advocacy and involvement with students, so that they are able to report to Students’ Council … where those gaps are as they shift, manifest, and appear to all of us.”

By building relationships with students and stakeholders alike, Beasley said he will amplify student voices to “advocate for student concerns.”

With a newly-elected government, Beasley said he thinks there will be a lot of interest in politics, especially from students. By engaging with students on the “issues that matter to them most,” he will make sure that interest stays.

“We’re showing people how the stuff that they would engage with us on makes it directly to the ears of power. I think that’s fundamentally something that keeps people interested. Because, they know that their Students’ Union is listening, speaking, and fighting for them.”

Katie Teeling

Katie Teeling was the 2023-24 Editor-in-Chief and the 2022-23 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She’s in her fifth year, studying anthropology and history. She is obsessed with all things horror, Adam Driver, and Lord of the Rings. When she isn’t crying in Tory about human evolution, Katie can be found drinking iced capps and reading romance novels.

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