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One year in: an NDP government’s impact on the University of Calgary

By Scott Strasser, May 10 2016 —

The Alberta New Democratic Party was elected on May 5 2015, ending a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty. The NDP’s victory came as a shock, upsetting Alberta’s long-standing political identity.

A year later, the Gauntlet compiled a list of some of the biggest changes that have impacted the University of Calgary.  We spoke to U of C NDP president Ryan Carter and Wildrose on Campus vice-president external Keean Bexte to get their thoughts on a year of orange governance.

1. Implemented a two year tuition freeze

The NDP implemented a two-year tuition freeze in September 2015 after restoring post-secondary funding that had previously been cut. Under the freeze, the cost of tuition is not allowed to rise at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions until 2017. The government also reversed the 2.2 per cent inflation-tied increase approved by U of C Board of Governors in 2014–15 and rolled back faculty-specific market modifiers.

Carter: The idea was, if we’re to raise tuition there has to be some kind of benefit for it — be it better programs, better buildings, something. The tuition raise the PCs were offering back in 2014 had no discernible benefit other than to fill the coffers of the government due to a drop in oil prices. In an interest to retain the quality of Alberta’s future, [the NDP] decided it would be better to not cut from [advanced education], but instead look to other efficiencies.

Bexte: Students need to understand that every dollar that’s going into subsidizing their degree is a dollar that’s going into government debt. Students hate student debt and I feel they are going to hate government debt just as much when they realize government debt has interest payments. Students will be happy right now that they’re paying less in tuition but they’re going to be paying for it through interest payments later on.

2. Increased spending on post-secondary education

The provincial government will provide Alberta’s post-secondary institutions with $5.7 billion in funding in 2015–16, with that number increasing by two per cent to $5.9 billion in 2016–17.

Bexte: Like I said, students hate student debt and they’re going to hate government debt as well when they’re the ones paying taxes. But this increase isn’t nearly as substantial as we’ve seen in other departments in the government — a two per cent increase relative to inflation isn’t that big of a deal — so I’m not going to complain about that.

Carter: For years, the post-secondary portfolio has been seen as superfluous and thus a place to cut when times are tough. Alberta’s future is within these institutions -— they are not superfluous and they should not be open to deep austerity cuts. With increased funding, we can hold the line on tuition and begin to improve decaying buildings and increase services for students.

3. Reintroduced the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP)

The NDP brought STEP back after the summer jobs program was cut by the PCs in 2013. Under STEP, small businesses and nonprofits can apply to receive a $7 per hour wage subsidy to supplement the costs of hiring students over the summer. The program is expected to support around 3,000 summer positions, but will cost taxpayers $10 million.

Bexte: [STEP] seems like another way for the NDP to try to solve a problem that could be solved by easier means. By lowering taxes on businesses, businesses are going to be in a better position to hire students. The rhetoric the NDP have spun with this is that it supports 3,000 jobs. I think it would be much more useful to have a government program that creates 3,000 jobs rather than just supports them. And you can do that by lowering taxes.

Carter: [STEP] was talked up quite highly in the high school I went to because it was a very efficient program at getting young people into the workplace. It incentivized private business to step in to get young people work experience. When it was cut, it was just another sign of a narcissistic government saying ‘we don’t want to pay for this.’

4. Marlin Schmidt replaced  Lori Sigurdson as the Minister of Advanced Education

Marlin Schmidt was sworn in as a cabinet minister in early February 2016. Unlike his predecessor Lori Sigurdson, Schmidt’s only responsibility is the Advanced Education portfolio. Schmidt is notably the eighth minister to hold the position in just five years.

Carter: The fact the government has decided to not only increase the budget [for post-secondary], but also to give it its own dedicated minister — something that hasn’t happened in a while — -really speaks to their interest in helping students thrive in a tough economy they’re going to be graduating into.

Bexte: Marlin Schmidt used to be a bureaucrat with the Alberta government as a groundwater contamination specialist. This goes to show that Rachel Notley doesn’t have enough experience in her cabinet to put on a piece of toast. Accidental MLAs are being thrust into positions they have zero experience for. Rachel Notley is caught in the middle, trying to shuffle what little experience she does have into portfolios that seem important at the time.

5. Renewed mental health funding for one year.

In 2013, The PCs granted $3 million to the U of C over three years for mental health initiatives. The funding was set to expire this year, but after a lobbying campaign from the Council of Alberta University Students, most of the mental health funding to universities was renewed for one year. The U of C is set to receive $900,000 next year to go towards mental health initiatives — $100,000 less than the previous three years.

Carter: There are a lot of things a lot of Albertans would like to do, but when we’re missing 32 per cent of our revenue, there are a lot of things that can’t get done. Mental health is of course very important, and the fact that this grant is coming out is definitely a boom for students. I’d be hopeful that in the future we’d see a more concrete plan to help mental health on campus.

Bexte: Mental health needs a lot of attention. Our party really supports mental health initiatives on campuses. We’ll see how this money is spent, is the more important way to look at it, rather than just how much it is.

6. Changed the Board of Governors member application process

Schmidt recently made headlines when he rejected the reappointment requests of three U of C BOG members, stating that from now on, board members’ terms would not be renewed when they expired. Members would have to reapply through “a proper recruitment process” if they wanted to continue sitting on the board. He justified his decision by pointing out that 80 per cent of BOG members were men over the age of 65, and that the board needed more diversity to reflect the university community.

Bexte: Accidental governments love the opportunity to stack boards and positions with party faithfuls. If the McDougall Centre, the chiefs of staff or their ministries are anything to go by, [the NDP] will bite at any opportunity to fill these positions with party faithful and union bosses. That’s something I think students should be concerned about. We need to be concerned about increased professor salaries and the general spending ways of the university.

Carter: If our boards of governors are simply put back into place over and over, where is the accountability? Where is the responsibility? There are many governors who have done great work for the university and the community. If they were to go into a [competition] for their job, they would likely win because of the great work they’ve done. This would be a great way of weeding out governors who aren’t pulling their weight and rewarding those who are.

Edited for brevity and clarity

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