Alberta releases its new postsecondary strategy

Last year, the UCP government spent nearly $4 million to a private firm to “renew and transform” post-secondary education. Here’s what $4 million got us.

Yesterday, the Alberta government released Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs, a strategy they say “sets the road map for a re-envisioned post-secondary system”.

According to the accompanying announcement, the strategy will help create a postsecondary system that focuses “on high-quality education and the skills and training needed for Alberta’s future”.

The strategy was a result of extensive public input:

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  • More than 115 one-on-one interviews to gather initial hypotheses, perspectives and concerns
  • 10 guiding coalition meetings
  • Almost 5,700 online survey submissions
  • More than 200 workbook submissions
  • Almost 1,500 participants in six telephone town halls
  • 31 roundtable sessions
  • Numerous direct submissions from stakeholders

It’s not clear, however, how much of that input ended up in the strategy.

Managing the engagement initiatives and the development of the strategy itself was Calgary-based consulting and research firm McKinsey & Company Canada. The UCP agreed to pay McKinsey & Company nearly $4 million to develop this strategy.

The report that outlines the new strategy claimed that Alberta faces 4 “challenges and opportunities”:

  1. Enrolment isn’t increasing despite a changing mix of learners.
  2. Program completion must better align with labour market demand.
  3. Translate research into real-world technology and products to attract capital and support innovation.
  4. Alberta’s government and post-secondary institutions are facing increased fiscal pressures.

I’ll address these one at a time.

Enrollment isn’t increasing

First, it’s misleading to says that enrolment isn’t increasing. I mean, it’s true, but it’s misleading.

Total postsecondary enrolment in the 2015–2016 school year was 264,286. Just 5 years later, it’s only 264,785, which is only a 0.18% increase. It’s true, but it’s misleading because full-time enrolment increased every one of those 5 years and part-time enrolment decreased, balancing one another out.

Here, let me show you.

Here’s another:

So, while it’s true that overall enrollment numbers are fairly stagnant, it paints a misleading picture. Full-time enrollment is up. In fact, as I stated earlier, it’s increased every year, and it has increased by nearly 20,000 students over this 5-year period. That’s a jump of about 12.5%.

Plus, let’s look at enrollment by institution type:

Comprehensive universities121,260123,387 125,066 129,155 131,284
Colleges53,14553,291 53,349 55,014 53,512
Undergrad universities34,08734,059 34,756 34,629 34,581
Polytechnic55,81453,477 49,368 48,813 43,327
Independent4,8115,129 5,374 5,712 6,459

What we see here is that while growth is pretty stagnant with colleges and primarily undergrad universities (such as MacEwan and Mount Royal)—and even declining among polytechnic institutions, such as NAIT and SAIT—enrollment in both comprehensive and independent universities has seen year-over-year increases.

(To be fair, college enrollment increased in all but the final year in the reporting period.)

So, any policies or strategies created as part of this process on the basis that enrollment isn’t increasing probably should exempt comprehensive universities (Athabasca, U of A, U of C, and U of L) and independent institutions. And maybe colleges.

Align program completion with market demand

This opportunity is concerning because it focuses heavily on the commodification of post-secondary education: that the purpose of higher education is to create workers for business owners. And this may be the case for something like trade schools, but university graduate programmes, for instance, are a different story.

Employability isn’t the only value of a university education. If it were, things like liberal arts programmes wouldn’t exist.

Take the 2016 Survey of First-Year Students from the Canadian University Survey Consortium. It showed that when first-year students were asked to rate their most important reason, less than half (44%) picked “prepare for a specific job or career”.

Another value of postsecondary education—and arguably its greatest value—is the education for education’s sake: the knowledge it provides, the new paradigms it helps students form, the greater perspectives it encourages graduates to take.

That same CUSC survey indicated that two non-career reasons for choosing university were among the top 5 most-popular among first-year students (apply learned knowledge in making a positive difference in society or my community and satisfy my intellectual curiosity).

Those are things that are difficult to commercialize. And if the goal is to commercialize education, those things may be lost in the process.

On that note, what does this mean for programmes that are difficult to commercialize? It’s one thing to commercialize a financial trading degree; it’s quite another to commercialize a gender studies degree.

For example, at one point, the Alberta 2030 report said that the postsecondary system “should focus on broadly applicable skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership and communication.” These are not skills that are easily commercialized, unlike a welding certificate or a dentistry degree.

Plus, the very system that teaches critical thinking and problem solving—such as broad-based liberal education requirements—are one of the things that people who see universities as worker factories complain about, that they see as unnecessary and impeding their pursuit of an education.

People graduating with an accounting degree want critical thinking skills, but they don’t want to take the sociology, anthropology, or history classes that help them develop those skills.

Commercialize research

Speaking of commercializing research, the third opportunity is to translate research into real-world technology and products to attract capital and support innovation.

This has the same problem as the previous opportunity. Some research is easily commercialized, like inventing a new polymer. On the other hand, some research—like my spouse’s master’s thesis on the ideal student within university policies—is much less likely to be commercialized.

And if research can’t be commercialized, will it be prioritized? Will research that’s still useful but less likely to attract private money be ignored in favour of research that’s sexier?

And on that note, why should research be motivated at all by its ability to attract capital? Or its ability to support innovation in the private sector?

Shouldn’t research be focused on the advancement of knowledge rather than the ability to cover the costs governments are refusing to fund?

Speaking of which . . .

Government faces fiscal pressures

Frankly, the fact that the provincial government faces increased fiscal pressures gets no sympathy from me.

The fiscal pressures the UCP government—and frankly the NDP and PC governments—faces are self-inflicted.

The UCP decided to cut the corporate income tax rate from 12% to 8%, the lowest in the country (heck, it’s lower than most US states). They decided to not implement a sales tax. They decided to not raise personal income tax on the rich. They decided not to implement a wealth tax. They decided to cancel the provincial carbon tax.

These so-called fiscal pressures are a result of a lack of revenue. That lack of revenue is easily solved: increasing taxes.

The changes this government wants to implement regarding postsecondary education—such as the commercialization of research and “diversification and growth of research funding and partnerships”—is driven by its inability to properly fund that education because they lack the funds to do so, a direct result of their refusal to increase revenue.

In addressing these 4 challenges and opportunities, the report outlines 6 goals:

  1. Improve access and student experience
  2. Develop skills for jobs
  3. Support innovation and commercialization
  4. Strengthen internationalization
  5. Improve sustainability and affordability
  6. Strengthen system governance

And while these may seem positive on the outside, as I pointed out last June, there are some problems with this new direction.

Here are a few things I noticed regarding “flagship initiatives” that were listed under these goals.

Improve access and student experience

Some of the initiatives here make sense, such as streamlining the application process and improving the transfer system.

Another initiative that seems reasonable is expanding access to online learning for rural and remote communities; however, this won’t be made possible through further provincial funding but rather through federal funding and industry partnerships.

I don’t know about you, but something seems off about a provincial government refusing to increasing revenue streams but then asking the federal government to cover the cost of increased education capacity.

There were also initiatives for addressing mental health and sexual violence, as well as improving outcomes for Indigenous learners in the areas of “foundational pathways, transitions, access, participation, completion and labour market”.

Develop skills for jobs

One initiative here was becoming the first province in Canada to offer access to work-integrated learning to 100% of students. This will be interesting to see them pull off, especially for students in education streams that aren’t focused on creating workers outside of academia.

Like, what would work-integrated learning look like for an archaeology student who doesn’t plan to go into graduate education?

Most of the rest of the initiatives in this section, unsurprisingly, are focused on creating workers (more apprenticeships, more trades students, increased labour data, etc), and I’ve pretty much covered this above.

I’m not surprised about the focus on trades, given the numbers I shared earlier, which seem to show trades education enrollment is declining.

To be clear, I don’t have an issue with education designed to help people get jobs. I just think that it shouldn’t be the sole purpose of education.

Support innovation & commercialization

This one goes to my earlier comments about commercialization, but there are some specific issues I didn’t mention earlier.

For example, growing “federal and industry investment in priority areas”. This is tied to the concerns I raised earlier about prioritization. Who will decide which research gets the highest priority, and how will they decide it?

Maybe here’s the answer: “Align provincial contributions for postsecondary research to promote commercialization to meet economic diversification priorities.”

So, the province will fund research based on how well it meets the priorities of economic diversification? What does that mean for the water institute or the centre for behavioural neuroscience here at the University of Lethbridge? Will researchers in these centres be less likely to get provincial funding?

Now this one literally had me audibly gasping when I read it: adopt faculty promotion and tenure policies to incentivize faculty to pursue entrepreneurial activities. So now if you want to be promoted from assistant professor to associate professor, you have to be an entrepreneur? Or if you want tenure? It’s not based on your research and teaching experience anymore?

Strengthen internationalization

The initiatives in this section are pretty benign, focusing on branding and marketing Alberta postsecondary internationally.

One thing that I did find interesting was the marketing strategy would include prioritizing international markets that “align with Alberta’s economic priorities”. Even the international students must be all about the economy.

Improve sustainability and affordability

The first initiative was intriguing: sponsor a shared service centre for academic (e.g., enrolment) and non-academic areas (e.g., human resources, finance). I’m not sure how this would work in practice? Is there really a lot of overlap between the registrar’s office and HR? Are student employees complaining about not being able to have their HR rep being able to help them register for the new semester?

Another initiative was pretty predictable—ensure tuition remains affordable, competitive and predictable. And equally unsurprising is another initiative in this section:

Reduce financial controls to provide institutions with greater financial flexibility to grow their own-source revenues and enable financial deconsolidation of some institutions from government.

By making it easier for postsecondary institutions to raise funding in additional ways, the government is making it easier for themselves to have to fund the institutions less.

A couple initiatives discussed needs-based financial aid. We need postsecondary education to be completely publicly funded, just as the primary and secondary educations systems are. People should be able to go to school without having to worry about whether they can afford to pay out of pocket or to pay off a debt for a decade after they graduate. We need publicly funded education, not more loans and grants.

Oh, there was one more initiative in this section: implement a performance-based funding model that ties funding to outcomes that align with this strategy. So, now I guess postsecondary funding will be tied to specific outcomes developed out of this strategy. This threatens the existence of unprofitable programmes, regardless of their value as knowledge generators.

Strengthen system governance

And the final goal.

The two biggest initiatives here are a new strategic council and changes to the postsecondary sectors.

The strategic council will be a system-level, independent body that will advise the advanced education minister on “strategic priorities, system-wide collaboration, best practices in other jurisdictions, and positioning Alberta as a leader in the national and international higher
education landscape”.

Currently, Alberta’s postsecondary institutions are organized into 6 sectors:

  • Comprehensive academic and research universities
  • Comprehensive community colleges
  • Independent academic institutions
  • Polytechnic institutions
  • Specialized arts and cultural institutions
  • Undergraduate universities

The government wants to reduce these to just 2, but it wasn’t clear on what they would look like, other than saying, “several institutions have expressed interest in shifting from colleges to polytechnics to better meet community needs”. Beyond that, it’s a bit foggy on what they’ll look like. Universities and polytechnics? That’s a possible combination.

Regardless of the make up, both of the new sectors will have a coordinating committee, although there aren’t any details on what these committees will look like or what they will do, beyond, well, coordinating.

An interesting initiative in this section is the possibility of the government getting out of the business appointing members of the boards of governors for postsecondary institutions (or at least most of them), as well as lengthening the tenure of board members. They say the latter is to minimize turnover.

And that’s it.

This strategy is focused more on the economy than it is on education.

Take the concluding page:

The purpose of Alberta 2030 is to provide the high-quality education and skills needed to get Albertans working, meet current and future labour market demands, and drive innovation to make our province, workforce, and citizens competitive in a 21st century economy.

See? Get Albertans working. Met labour market demands. Become competitive in the economy.

To the government, education seems like a means to an end rather than having its own independent and inherent value.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

8 replies on “Alberta releases its new postsecondary strategy”

Below is a link to an essay from 1939 that appeared in Harpers Magazine. The author is Abraham Flexner the founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. It is an essay describing how “useless science often leads to humanity’s greatest technological breakthroughs”. Your point.

If you haven’t read it already I hope you find it interesting.

Stagnant enrollment may be a side-effect of diminished choice in academic opportunities. Successive conservative governments have cut funding to post-secondary education, causing the loss of program streams and student spaces. How many students are leaving the province to study elsewhere because they cannot get into the program they want here?

Furthermore, you raise the question of how non-trades or job-specific programs can be commercialized. It seems clear that the UCP would like to eliminate those programs. Philosophy, gender studies, fine arts, sociology, literature, linguistics, history… there is a long list of program areas where there is no direct and obvious job upon graduation. Apparently, the UCP can see no use for such programs. But it is exactly such programs which provide the human side of education. These are the kinds of programs which pass along culture, illuminate our society, and advance broad social goals like equality, ending poverty, seeking truth, and evolving through an understanding of the human condition and how we interact with the world. We need philosophers and poets. Our capitalist system completely undervalues deep thought, creativity, and idealism because it doesn’t put money in wealthy people’s pockets, and, indeed, may make the masses less manageable.

Every time the UCP comes up with ways to tinker with our education system, I see that they are really trying to drive the future of Alberta to one which is occupied mainly by “proles”.

I was interested to see a note about the UofA not having to reveal its budget. Sounds devious to me.

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