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Post-secondary education cuts - What sort of Alberta do we want?

Posted on October 15, 2013 by Richard Einarson

"Alberta finds itself at a crossroads. Our ability to continue to seize the opportunities that abound here is dependent on a population that can participate fully in the economy. So is our ability to continue building a strong supportive society that’s attractive to those who are already here and that can attract those who will help build Alberta’s future. We have the resources. We have a motivated workforce. What we need is an enhanced learning system that supports all of our aspirations."

These words were written in 2006 in the Learning Alberta report, which is the last time our province had a formal strategy for post-secondary education. They're powerful words. They're accurate words. They're words I wish I had written myself.

It's also the complete opposite of what's happening Alberta's post-secondary education system today. 

Alberta continues to struggle with a post-secondary participation rate far below the national average, and it's much lower for aboriginal and first nations students.  A $150 million cut in the last provincial budget has made the situation worse.

And while breaking Alison Redford’s 2012 election promise to invest $650 million in post-secondary education is a betrayal of Albertans' trust, equally concerning is the way Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education minister Thomas Lukaszuk has imposed something called "Campus Alberta" on our 26 post-secondary institutions. In his top-down, heavy-handed "mandate letter" he essentially told each institution how to run their organizations. This is the opposite of collaborative decision-making.

Is this to say that change isn't needed in Alberta's post-secondary system? No. The world is changing and we need to adapt with it, but collaborative change always leads to better outcomes than a top-down approach. Collaboration almost invariably results in innovative ideas that no single individual would come up with on their own, and the people asked to participate will also be much more engaged in driving change if they were part of building the plan in the first place. 

And what sort of changes should we consider? First off, education of all kinds; primary, post-secondary and creating opportunities for lifelong learning, is the key to ensuring Alberta remains economically and socially strong in a changing world. Innovation in program delivery is important and will present opportunities for cost savings, but adequate financial support for students and post-secondary institutions is essential.

Let me be clear; I believe we need to spend more money on post-secondary education in Alberta. We currently have the lowest per-capita spending on post-secondary education in western Canada; our neighbours in BC spend nearly twice as much per capita as Alberta.

Under-investment in post-secondary education results in higher student debt. Students coming out of university with $30,000 to $40,000 or even more in debt aren't going to consider starting a business or joining a small startup. They're going to take the highest paying job they can to pay off their student loans, which means they often end up with larger companies. This has unintended consequence of making it more difficult for small businesses to hire talented new graduates. Smaller companies can't afford high wages but are the engines of innovation in our province.

And finally, while a focus on commercializing our research is important we must never lose sight of the critical role of basic research. It's just this sort of "blue-sky research" that earned Peter Higgs and Francois Englert the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics, or the basic research in electromagnetics that led to the discoveries that underpin radio and television; something that could never have been imagined when researchers Hertz and Maxwell set out to acquire new knowledge without a specific commercial application in mind. There are countless other examples, including many in Alberta.

Education is the key to economic diversification and ensuring Alberta is able to adapt to a changing world. It is critical that we work with post-secondary stakeholders to build a system that keeps Alberta strong for the long term. It’s even more important that we live up to our commitments and fund post-secondary education appropriately.

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