Canada’s pre-eminent public intellectual John Ralston Saul famously wrote, “The rising power of specialist groups increasingly ties this train to what is called utility. In order to attract money from and for these groups, universities are now reorganizing themselves to serve directly a variety of very specific interests. The thousand year struggle to create independent centers of learning and free thought is rarely mentioned.”
Much like the society Saul talks about, Alberta has began to reorganize its post-secondary education to serve specific interests.
Furthermore, Alberta has consistently proven in its budgets and in its actions that education is not much of a priority at all. One out of every three students in Alberta go on to attend post-secondary education out of high school, and overwhelmingly, the cited reason for not attending is affordability. This should come as no surprise as Albertans have consistently paid tuition that is among the highest in Canada. Last year, Alberta was rated third, behind New Brunswick and Ontario and in 2008 we were fifth.
While the Alberta government has complained about transfer payments and taxation, post-secondary education has consistently been de-prioritized and commercialized. Long gone are the days of glorified liberal education institutions. Learning for its own sake has been sacrificed to Rexall, Shell, and prominent banks. Instead of students lust after Stein, Meade, and Keohane, we see students entering university to get degrees to obtain jobs. Our government has consistently told students that debt is a four-letter word. That is unless it is in the form of student loans.
The mid nineties brought drastic cuts to all aspects of post-secondary education, as it did elsewhere. Universities were cut at the knees, and institutions responded in this new consumer-driven market by raising tuition, and hoping students could beg, borrow or steal enough to attend their institutions.
Students responded by increasing their student loans, by getting part time jobs while they committed less time to their full time studies, and by simply dropping out when times got too hard. The University of Lethbridge, like much of Alberta has a 30% first-year dropout rate, and once again the primary reason cited is affordability. When the average student is graduating with $25,000 in student loans, loans held by our federal and provincial governments, they are easily deterred.
Much like in the early nineties, students who cannot afford to continue their education due to impending tuition increases are looking at minimum wage jobs, if they can get a job at all. Alberta’s unemployment rates are increasing steadily, and now is the time to pursue education if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford it. On top of this, unemployment affects young people disproportionately.
Sadly, this last round of clear deprioritization and detrimental budget cuts is only shocking because of its herd-like behaviour; following the leader off a cliff. Duncan Wojtaszek, Executive Director of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) and a former student executive at the University of Calgary Students Union from earlier this decade commented “The province is passing its financial hardship to students in the form of new debt. The government was saying no area was sacred, but a $54 million dollar cut to scholarships and bursaries, not including the loan forgiveness plan was not communicated to students in any way.”
Wojtaszek’s experience with Alberta politics and post-secondary education funding is diverse and lengthy. Yet, this budget was an unexpected hardship, with Wojtaszek saying that this budget “disproportionately affects students.”
“Last time around the cuts were to the entire system, this time it appears that the government is passing off all their cuts to students in the form of student debt,” Wojtaszek continues. “Institutions are making it up through increased tuition and increased fees. All sacrifices are being aimed at students, whereas last time they were at the community as a whole.”
The precedent-setting cuts made in the early nineties when then-premier Ralph Klein was crowned king of this oil bearing land rippled out, and it put post secondary education institutions behind in ways they are still struggling to make up for. Crumbling classrooms, unmaintained buildings, and poorly conceived residence buildings are a result of slashed stable and renewable maintenance funding. Low-grade technology is the result of having to prioritize one thing over another, and, as the operating grants shrink our class sizes will balloon. Wojtazsek notes that “It is certainly evident that it will put us further behind, but what remains to be seen is if it is a one time blip or if they will be systemic and permanent.”
Anand Sharma, former Chair of the CAUS in 2002/2003 spent much of his time fighting the same issues that current PSE advocacy organizations are still fighting today in Alberta. He remembers “Institutions facing tough decisions, raising tuition consistently.”
“Already we have an issue with whose getting a PSE in this province. Those who want to go can’t go, and have to join the workforce to be able to afford it,” Sharma says. “People are entering PSE later and later. Government continually underfunds PSE, and our institutions are not working with students to really tell the government that what is happening.”
The priorities from the late nineties and early 00’s are the same ones student advocates hold today: maintain the tuition cap. This is so universities cannot raise tuition to pay their Presidents multi-million dollar retirement packages, and fight differential tuition so that universities cannot raise tuition in fields like law, medicine, and pharmaceutical science by over 40%, as proposed by the U of C and U of A. Sharma comments that, “ten years from now, the people who are going to attend are going to be the wealthiest whose parents can pay their tuition. Programs like medicine and dentistry will be even more expensive.”
The truth is that Alberta does a disgraceful job of ensuring their citizens are the best educated and that our economy is diverse and sustainable. This budget round, $54 million was cut from scholarships, bursaries, and grants. The Alberta Loan Relief program was scrapped altogether, a program that used to give students who couldn’t find high-income careers immediately the ability to defer their loan payments or have them forgiven if their financial situation was dire enough. Yet, as low-income students suffer, the government of Alberta can afford to fund another $100 million to Carbon Capture and Storage. Sharma’s statement that, “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the left or right, prioritizing education is a no brainer. It is a win-win for the economy or the province. It was very short sighted” rings true when we see this hegemonic and out of touch government remain in place.
The history of continual de-funding is embarrassing, and yet we seem to have learned little from it. Alberta has experienced a brain drain during even tougher economic times than this. Incredibly promising future researchers and intellectuals have gone to provinces that regulate tuition and ensure that accessibility and affordability are more than pretty words next to a slogan that rings hollow.
Last year, the Alberta government touted the phrase “knowledge economy”, this year the new phrase is “commercialization.” Primary research, intellectual freedom, and learning for the sake of knowledge seem closer and closer to being bygones. Library lights fall, residence buildings are vacated routinely for bed bug fumigation, and our class sizes have become bigger. Students, Albertans, and university administration need to tell our elected government that we want a province that is knowledgeable, and sustainable; not a province that sends our greatest minds elsewhere, as it has the last 15 years.
“The university needs to be champions for PSE and funding for PSE, and often they are appointed by the government and they don’t feel they can be as vocal. A lot of people don’t know until there kids have to go into PSE.”