Last week, the University of Alberta’s Board of Governors retreated to discuss the challenges raised by the recent provincial budget. They met Premier Alison Redford and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who is also the minister for Enterprise and Advanced Education. Upon his return, Lucaszuk tweeted “Back in #yeg from @UAlberta retreat. Planing its role in Campus Alberta, Canadian and global education. Exciting! #abgov #ableg #abpse”.
I’m sure the Minister meant to type ‘planning’ instead of ‘planing’, but given that postsecondary institutions are dealing with a surprise 7.3% cut in funding, perhaps ‘planing’ was the intended verb. ‘Sawing’ or ‘cutting’ might also have been appropriate choices.
Other developments this past week provided some sense of where the government sees potential savings in its postsecondary file. The government formally announced that it was using reserve funds to freeze next year’s tuition rates. The Edmonton Journal reported that Lukaszuk was also ruling out the use of ‘market modifiers’ to implement large tuition increases for professional schools such as law or medicine. A government news release noted, “We’ve been very clear that we will not be balancing the budget on the backs of students.”
The government exhibits less restraint about balancing its budget on the backs of postsecondary institution employees. Lukaszuk sent a letter to the chairs of the boards of governors of all postsecondary schools requesting all future collective bargaining agreements to hold to salary freezes for 3 years, and no more than 2% increases in a fourth. In addition, “awarding of performance bonuses would likely be considered irresponsible during this current economic climate.” This letter, combined with comments to the press, suggests that Lukaszuk believes that savings accrued by cutting salaries and by increasing teaching loads are preferential to program cuts, which have also been making the news this past week, and over which the minister has the final say. “If the schools ask me to close programs, I will look at what they are doing for efficiencies, what they are proposing on the salary side,” Lukaszuk said, adding that teaching loads could also be on the table.
What I find profoundly puzzling about all of these developments is their simultaneous accompaniment by government claims that the $147 million taken from postsecondary education will not harm it. According to the Edmonton Journal, the Premier believes that “the cutbacks will make the system stronger by helping ‘change the way we think, work, and deliver services’.” In the same letter to the chairs of the Boards in which he requested salary freezes and elimination of bonuses, Lukaszuk wrote “our government believes that it is important to attract and retain the best and brightest.”
Why does the government believe that it can make Albertan postsecondary stronger by dramatically cutting its budget, or that it can attract and retain the best and brightest in a climate of reduced funding and of salary restraint?
This belief is certainly out of step with other government policies that acknowledge attracting high-power research talent requires substantial financial investment. Lukaszuk’s ministry, for instance, is responsible for the Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP). According to its website, the CAIP intends to recruit new research leaders to Alberta in four designated priority areas: energy and environment, food and nutrition, neuroscience/prions and water. It has budgeted funds for 16 research chairs in these areas, varying in value from approximately $300k to $650k per year for seven years. Funding all 16 chairs for 7 years at the minimum level would require $33.6 million. This Government of Alberta program clearly recognizes that Big Science costs big money.
If you are not willing to pay, then Big Science moves to other jurisdictions that will. Unfortunately, the same is true for medium science and for tiny science, and this is why government cuts will decrease postsecondary quality.
Consider the goal of attracting the best and the brightest, not with high-end research chairs, but using the usual means of tenure-track academic positions. A promising, bright candidate is going to accept offers from other regions or countries when they realize that an Albertan position comes with salary freezes, no merit pay, larger teaching loads, and the like. The best and brightest always have other offers to consider. Attracting such researchers is a competition, and the current Albertan climate is unattractive in comparison to others.
Retention faces the same issue. From a professional point of view, when one’s current position appears tarnished, one looks to opportunities elsewhere. In academia, who can take advantage of such opportunities? Promising junior faculty members are very mobile. Well-established senior scholars are candidates for high profile positions, such as those offered by CAIP – but by agencies outside of Alberta. Losing either type of researcher weakens a department. Worse, in tight economic times no money is available to replace a departed scholar. Programs necessarily become weaker and smaller as their top assets move to greener pastures.
In my own department, there is clear evidence of such weakening related to previous government cutbacks. I recently published a historical analysis of a century of psychology at the University of Alberta. For a long period that began after World War II, the department grew at a steady state of about one faculty member per year until its size peaked in the late 1980s. With Klein-era cutbacks in the early 1990s, department size shrank and never recovered.
All indicators suggest another downturn is on the horizon, affecting many different programs in all Albertan postsecondary institutions. Not all agree with this prediction. Lukaszuk has said, “I would be very surprised if any professors are actually seriously thinking of leaving any university in Alberta”. However, as the postsecondary sector found out in the budget, surprises do happen. The government may eventually have to admit that it cannot afford the quality of postsecondary education that it would like to offer, and that one consequence of its budget will be a failure to attract and retain the best and brightest.