Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dismantling the Post-Secondary Education System -- Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about post-secondary education in Canada, and how our excellent educational system has contributed to Canada's global economic success and high quality of life. I posed the question: Why would anyone want to dismantle our post-secondary education system?

There is no doubt in my mind that post-secondary education (PSE) is under siege in this country. In the province of British Columbia, since a liberal-conservative coalition party (the BC "Liberals") took power twelve years ago, colleges and universities have been under assault.

In the first few years, the actions of that government initially appeared positive in terms of greater access for students. In the early 2000's, the BC government opened a slew of new universities, such as Thompson Rivers University, Vancouver Island University, and the University of the Fraser Valley. Essentially, they transformed a number of colleges into full degree granting independent universities under the University Act. Most of these former colleges already had limited degree granting status, and/or had been offering university degrees in partnership arrangements with large BC research universities.

Behind the scenes, however, the BC Liberals were busy interfering with the autonomy of universities to set their own curriculum and course content, and were taken to court repeatedly. The BC Liberals labelled the new universities "teaching universities" and funded them on a different formula than the four "research universities." This was in part a cost-saving strategy, but more ominously, it signaled the government's attempt to remake the nature of university itself. This motive became especially apparent in the last five years when the BC Liberals developed "letters of expectation" for post-secondary institutions as part of the budget process. These letters limit the institutions' autonomy and explicitly provide instruction to universities and colleges to focus on the BC government's priorities. When you consider the fact that universities serve the broader public good, and that universities have very long planning horizons (5 or more years to plan a new program and get government approval to run it, long term commitment to see each cohort of students through 4-5 years to completion, and multi-year or even whole career commitments to highly specialized teaching staff), it seems foolhardy to force universities to align their missions with the  short term ideas of the political party of the day.  

Also, over their years in power, the BC Liberals tore up contracts and cut wages across the entire public sector. Although the budget cuts to kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12) education and the health sector received the most press, universities were severely impacted as well. More than a decade of legislated 0-0-0 and 0-0-2 salary increments have resulted in BC university professors at many of the institutions being among the lowest paid in Canada in comparable PSE sectors, which affects the province's ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Beginning professors make less than school teachers, bus drivers, letter carriers, and oil field workers; and student support staff at BC universities currently make 50% less than their counterparts in Alberta. 

During the reign of the current premier, the BC Liberals also have decimated the community college system. For example, in the northern half of the province, colleges such as Northwest Community College faced such severe budget cuts that they were required to close campuses and programs, and lay off ten percent of their employees. No sooner had the government thrown the colleges into disarray and decimated upgrading, trades, and technical education opportunities for students, than the government announced that there was a shortage of trained trades and technical workers in the northern part of the province, and demanded that colleges address these training needs (the "Workforce Table" initiative). Ludicrous, cynical, and shortsighted are the words that spring to mind.

Similar budget slashing has occurred across several other Canadian provinces. In Quebec, a recent attempt reduce operating grants to post-secondary institutions and raise student tuition to match rates in other Canadian provinces resulted in widespread student protests, strikes, and campus closures. The government responded to the students by withdrawing the tuition increase, and requiring universities to make up the funding cuts by making large internal budget reductions. Budget cuts to PSE are also underway in Ontario.

Most recently, Premier Redford's Progressive Conservative government in the province of Alberta brought in a bad news budget that disproportionately slammed universities and colleges. In the spring of 2012 (which just happened to be around election time) the Conservatives promised provincial post-secondary institutions three years of stable funding of two percent increases to their operating grants each year. As two percent is not enough to cover additional operating costs each year, this funding level actually entailed making cuts. However, at least it was a known amount that could be addressed through careful planning.

By March 7 of this year, the promise was long forgotten. The Redford's Conservatives announced a cut of 147 million dollars in operating grants for Alberta colleges and universities. The six universities each have to cut 7.3 percent of their continuing operating budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, a mere 22 days after the budget announcement. When this reduction to the operating grant is combined with the increased costs of running a university and meeting contractual obligations, this amount translates as actual budget cuts in the realm of 10-12%. To put this in perspective, it means laying off ten percent of university employees and closing programs and thousands of seats for students. This, in a province that already has a low post-secondary participation rate. To make matters worse, the minister responsible for advanced education, Thomas Lukaszuk, accompanied the budget announcement with "mandate letters" requiring the universities to comply with government directives based on half-baked notions about duplication of programs and misunderstandings of how the provincial transfer system works, and then a few weeks later also decided to freeze tuition at 2012 levels rather than allowing an adjustment for inflation.   

Here is a link that provides an insight into what the cuts will mean. This letter to the editor of the Lethbridge Herald written by Rob Sutherland describes the impact on the University of Lethbridge, and the surrounding community. The University of Lethbridge, a small but very good comprehensive university in southern Alberta, is known for its commitment to access, high quality, small class sizes and a personalized learning environment, and an aspiration to make a positive difference in the world. Sutherland's letter has sparked a thoughtful exchange of ideas in the paper's comment section.

Surely these massive cuts to universities and colleges will have a profound impact on the communities and students they serve. These budget reductions are not just "cutting a bit of fat," but in fact begin the process of dismantling the entire university and college system. The post-secondary education system has taken nearly two centuries to build, and has served Canada well in the global economy. As we destroy our universities, we will lose our competitive advantage and doom our children and grandchildren to less prosperous futures.

Sadly, the small-minded Canadian politicians with their slash and burn mentalities and five year horizons are not particularly original. As discussed in a chilling article in Aljazeera on the neoliberal assault on academia, it seems that they are simply capitalizing on anti-education trends elsewhere in the world and targeting post-secondary education as a handy way to balance their budgets.

If you care about the future of post-secondary education and the future of our country, don't vote for these politicians.   


  1. Here's a recent opinion piece on the dilemma that Canadian universities find themselves in:

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