Thursday, March 12, 2015

Alberta Universities - Challenging and Uncertain Futures

Two reports, both published in the last few days, should give our Government cause for pause as they think about reducing funding for post-secondary education in Alberta. We are not in good shape.

The first is the annual rankings of Universities around the world. Canada has just three in the top 100 – University of Toronto (16), McGill (35) and UBC (37). For engineering, we can add Waterloo (68).  No Alberta institution makes this grade. What is interesting is that the middle of this list is now increasingly featuring Asian and Latin American institutions. Sometime ago, the University of Alberta indicated its intention to be on this list. It is not.

The second report is from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, which looked at the performance of Canadian institution in terms of key outcomes  - job qualifications and earnings; access to education based on levels of student aid and debt; research funding and reputation. Again, Alberta did not appear to be the shining star of Canada. Indeed, we had the second worst outcomes overall in Canada, slightly ahead of Saskatchewan. The report indicates we are a high cost, low outcome performer.

No doubt the Government of Alberta will seize on this point – “high cost, low outcome” – and blame those who lead and manage our Universities. In some cases, this may well be correct. But the reality is that the Government keeps changing the rules of the game. Making Mount Royal and McEwan Universities, expanding private Universities, permitting degree granting for Colleges, capping tuition, developing clear and focused research strategies which may be appropriate but don't match the skills and capacities of our institutions, changing the basis of funding – all lead to Presidents and their leadership teams working in an atmosphere of constant uncertainty. The high point of this was the difference between a planned addition of monies quickly followed by a budget reduction, all within 2.5 months during the brief tenure of one Minister.

What Alberta needs is a focused strategy for its post-secondary system that goes beyond the crude rhetoric of “skills” and “employability” (not that these are unimportant). Just what do we want our universities and colleges to contribute and what is a plan for enabling this to occur with a sense of stability and focus so that leaders can lead and managers can manage.

Something needs to happen in any case. We sit with our major Universities running deficits and one – Athabasca University – in deep and serious trouble. A bold decision has to be made – merge it with McEwan, close it (it's a jewel in Canada’s crown – our only open university), privatize it or create some kind of public:private partnership.

Making this decision will tell us a lot about the way the Wildrose Prentice Government sees universities.

When Janet Tully and I wrote our book Rethinking Post-Secondary Education we explored the changes which need to occur because the world of higher education is fast changing. We outlined a great many options and strategies which need to be considered, but the key is public commitment to public education. As funding per capita for higher education students declines in real terms, it gets more difficult to be strategic – Presidents and their teams are in “reaction” and “problem solving” mode more often than in planning and development mode. I know, I have been at the table. What they need now is long term, stable funding decisions and a Government that gets out of the way so that they can do the institution building and transformations they see as appropriate to their strategic intent.

Cutting them now at 10% and making no decisions about their future will increase the uncertainty and cause more harm than good. Money isn’t everything with respect to this challenge, as the HEQC of Ontario report makes clear. But it certainly helps.

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