Sunday, November 06, 2005

Getting our Advanced Education Right



Last week’s “flip flop” over post secondary tuition in Alberta tells us that the Government of Alberta is not sure what the real issues are that face post secondary institutions. So let us help them There are five.

The first is very simple: sustainability. Our Universities, Colleges and Polytechnics are not sustainable in the medium to long term with current levels and mixtures of financing. As their cost rise – salary increases, utility costs and cost of materials – they either need more revenue from student fees or more contributions from the Government or some combination of both. Freezing one suggests increasing the other. The tendency is for Government to want to freeze both, or at least minimising the impact of freezing tuition by minimizing the grant increases to institutions. In a presentation to the Standing Policy Committee earlier this year, Alberta’s four Universities asked for a 20% increase in base grants over the next three years so as to restore them to their pre 1992 condition. This government does not want to do this, hence the issue of sustainability.

The second issue is accessibility. There are no problems with access to post-secondary institutions in Alberta. They are all full. The real issue here is about ensuring that there are more places available at affordable prices. When we look at accessibility we are looking at questions of growth. Given that the post secondary institutions already have issues about sustainability, access becomes a more subtle question: once we have ensured that our institutions have sustainable funding, what are we then willing to do to invest in expanding the existing system. Some see making Mount Royal College into a University as a part answer to this issue. It is not, since all this does is move money from one part of the system to another. Access is synonymous with a request for funding over and above sustainability funding.

The third issue is innovation. What can our post-secondary institutions contribute to the present and future economic growth of the Province? Here we need to systematically pursue policies which differentiate between institutions. Research resources should be focused on Universities. The Province needs to increase not only its research endowment investments, create an endowment for the Arts and Humanities and systematically fund specific activities on a matching formulae with industry, but should target growth. For example, growing nanotechnology at the UofA, water research at Lethbridge, e-learning research and development at Athabasca and energy research at the UofC – each should have target resources linked to commercialization outcomes. Our Polytechnics and Colleges should be linked strongly to industry sector councils and challenged to improve the rate of adoption of best practices and to partner with firms to massively improve productivity. Without a focused approach, we will get nowhere.

The fourth issue is collaboration. This Province, through the development of Campus Alberta and the work of its institutions, is better than most at collaborative work. We need to look for more joint programs, joint research and joint challenges. The Province should challenge the institutions, working in partnership to make massive improvements in aboriginal education and to speed the training programs for key professionals. It should also look to use Athabasca University as the provider of e-learning for all post secondary students in Alberta, so that the existing institutions can focus on what they are best at.

The fifth issue is quality (and for some, this is the first issue). Alberta has the opportunity for the University of Alberta to be recognized as being amongst the top 20 in the world and for the University of Calgary to be seen as amongst the top 20 in North America. It already has one University - Athabasca University – that is recognized as best in class at what it does. Getting the previous issues wrong will adversely affect quality and will be seriously detrimental to the reputation of the Province and the future of these institutions. Whatever we do, we should strive to continuously improve the quality of the learning experience, the impact of research and the quality of the working conditions for those engaged in post secondary education. To get to the opportunity to improve the position of our institutions requires them to be sustainable, focused and effective – all pre conditions for quality.

There are related concerns and opportunities – do we have too much post secondary governance for a Province of just over three million people, can we improve the public:private mix of institutions, can we expand the system by innovative methods – but we can test the veracity of the post secondary review now underway by how it deals with these five issues.

One last thing. Cabinet government requires that key issues – and for a very large number of people, tuition policy is a key issue – be dealt with in cabinet and for there to be collective responsibility. Last week’s "flip flop" tells us a lot about governance within the Government of Alberta and its ability to govern effectively. Such behaviour does not bode well for the critical issues facing our post-secondary system.

2 comments:

J Lane said...

I was in full agreement until your last two points:

"The fourth issue is collaboration. This Province, through the development of Campus Alberta and the work of its institutions, is better than most at collaborative work."

I completely disagree with this. I had the opportunity to sit down with people from BC at a conference back in June. They have a far greater level of coordination than Alberta. The fact that we have two provincial bodies (Campus Alberta is one, I can't remember the name of the second) already places us at a disadvantage. BC is currently working on a unified admissions system for the entire province. You apply to a single location and are accepted at any number of institutions. This has the potential to save a ton of money in the long run. Think about how it simplifies the process of transfer agreements. At the University of Lethbridge, there is a database of hundreds of articulation agreements between post-secondary institutions. It's crazy how a standard can't be agreed upon by all institutions in the province.

"The fifth issue is quality (and for some, this is the first issue). Alberta has the opportunity for the University of Alberta to be recognized as being amongst the top 20 in the world and for the University of Calgary to be seen as amongst the top 20 in North America. It already has one University - Athabasca University – that is recognized as best in class at what it does."

I would like to point out that the U of A and the U of C both received dismal grades in the recent Globe and Mail ranking of Canadian Universities. These surveys are generally conducted based on student opinion, rather than research dollars. I think it's embarassing that Alberta's universities consistently perform so poorly when it comes to the quality of teaching, class sizes and student services. The fact that Athabasca University is "best in class" is a bit of a misconception as well. Have you ever taken a course from Athabasca? The pedagogy is borderline at best, and the technology certainly lags what it could be. Others within the province are doing a far better job of distance delivery than Athabasca. Personally, I would rather take a class from a subject matter expert than from somebody who is an "expert" in distance delivery. The medium should be transparent to the learner.

Stephen Murgatroyd said...

Alberta is workig on a unified admission scheme, it created the first transfer scheme in Canada - both ideas copied by BC.

Globe and Mail ranking focuses on a narrow set of issues.

I founded the MBA at Athabasca, which is ranked amongst the best in the world and independent assessment of programs and courses at the graduate and undergraduate level consistently show it to be excellent. Some courses arent, most are.

AU's technology varies by program, so if you look at the graduate level, it is generally solid - the undergraduate program is weak technologically. Which is why it hired a CIO in 2004 and why they have adopted "moodle" as their open source platform for learning.

But many thanks for the comments.