I was recently browsing through Alberta’s 2021–2022 provincial budget, when I encountered the projected operating expenses for postsecondary education in the province.
In 2019–2020, the Alberta government spent $5.477 billion on postsecondary education. According to the August 2021 fiscal update, they spent $5.132 billion in the most recent budget year (2020–2021), a decrease of $345 million.
Where it gets even more interesting is over the next 3 years: the current budget year and the 2 subsequent budgets. Here, take a look for yourself.
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|Budget year||Difference from|
What we see is that over the next 3 years, the UCP government plans to—assuming they’re reelected in 2023—cut spending on postsecondary education by a combined $1.159 billion.
If we add in the $345 million from last year, that’s a total cut in operational spending of $1.504 billion.
And that’s not even including inflation or population growth.
For example, between 2019 and 2020, inflation increased 1.9% within Alberta. Here’s what that same table would look like if Alberta saw 1.9% inflation every year and the UCP increased spending to match it.
|Budget year||1.9% increase|
In other words, over the four years following 2019–2020, the UCP government would’ve spent a combined $1.06 billion more on postsecondary education to cover inflation.
That means the $1.504 billion shortfall I mentioned earlier actually becomes a $2.602 billion shortfall.
And that’s just for inflation.
Between 1 April 2019 (the start of the 2019–2020 budget year) and 1 April 2020, the population of Alberta went up by 71,246, a 1.6% increase.
Here’s what the above table would look like if the UCP increased spending to match 1.6% population growth in addition to the 1.9% inflation growth, assuming population grows at 1.6% every year for the following 3 years.
|Budget year||1.9% +1.6%|
Had the UCP increased spending by 3.5% to match inflation and population growth, they would’ve spent an additional $2.004 billion over the 4 years following the 2019–2020 budget year.
That means they’re actually cutting operational spending on postsecondary education by not $1.504 billion, but $3.573 billion.
Where are those cuts coming from? Well, mostly the operation of our universities, colleges, and technical schools.
|Ministry support services||9||8||7||7||7|
|Program delivery support||77||74||72||72||75|
|Support for adult learning||67||78||75||74||71|
|Foundational learning supports||89||78||92||92||93|
The vast majority of operational spending by this ministry is in the operation of the institutions themselves.
We do see increases in foundational learning supports (as much as $4 million from 2019–2020 levels), student aid (up to $7 million), and support for adult learning (up to $4 million).
But we also see cuts elsewhere (as much as $2 million from support services, $2 million from programme delivery support, and of course hundreds of millions of dollars cut from postsecondary operations.
But again, remember, these are absolute dollars and don’t reflect inflationary or population pressure, let alone past budgets that have underfunded postsecondary education.
So, why is there such drastic budget slashing. Well, the UCP government claims we’re overspending in this area.
The MacKinnon Panel reported that Alberta spent $36,500 per student on post-secondary education, which was significantly more than the three comparator provinces: British Columbia spent $31,300, Ontario spent $21,500 and Quebec spent $25,800 per student.“Expense”, Fiscal Plan 2021–23, p. 104
Here’s the problem with this though.
We’re spending more per student in Alberta because it costs more to deliver services in Alberta.
Alberta has the highest median income in Canada, the highest average income in Canada, and the highest proportion of the population making above $100,000. People in Alberta simply have higher paycheques, compared to their peers in other provinces.
That means it’s going to cost more to pay someone to transport supplies, to clean your floors, to repair your equipment, to design your website. And so on.
And if truckers, and custodians, and mechanics, and web designers are making more than their peers in other provinces, why shouldn’t professors, or teaching assistants, or planners, or advancement officers?
It’s unfair to demand that public sector workers make as much as their peers in other provinces when private sector workers make more than their peers.
These cuts are fundamentally creating a two-tiered workforce.
Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that the difference between post-secondary spending in 2020-2021 from 2019–2020 was $385 million. That was a transposed number; it is actually $358 million. That has been updated, as have calculations based on that. I also updated the 2020–2021 and 2021–22 numbers to match those within the August fiscal update. That update did not have numbers for future years.