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Photo of Demetrios Nicolaides, Minister Advance Education. // Photo courtesy of Alberta Government/Flickr.

“We have to roll up our sleeves and make some changes”: Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides on Budget 2019

By Kristy Koehler, November 8 2019—

The United Conservative Party’s recently-tabled budget has sparked worry, confusion and even anger among Alberta’s post-secondary students. The budget includes an increase in interest fees on Alberta Student Loans, cuts to the Campus Alberta Grants that institutions in the province receive and the cancellation of the education and tuition tax credits. The University of Calgary is facing an imminent $32 million cut to its funding, with more cuts projected to come in the next three years. 

Despite the cuts — and the backlash — Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides says the feedback he’s hearing isn’t all bad. 

“I’m hearing a lot of good things of course — a lot of Albertans, including students, realize that the direction that we were taking as a province was simply not sustainable and that we need to turn the ship around now before it gets too late,” he said. “A lot of people recognize that we have to make some difficult decisions in order to get there but we do have to stay focused on that long-term goal.”

The long-term goal, he says, is balancing the budget and strengthening the bonds between education and the labour market. He expressed concern that enrolment in post-secondary institutions has not increased commensurate with the amount of funding they have received, stating that while funding has increased 106 per cent, enrolment has only increased by 21 per cent over the last decade.

The list of institutions receiving the cuts has received criticism. Six institutions are listed as receiving a zero per cent loss of funding — among them are the four faith-based schools in the province, along with Concordia University of Edmonton and Medicine Hat College.

Nicolaides says there was no consideration of an institutions’ religious affiliation at all. 

“We looked at historical surpluses of our institutions and determined how we would allocate Budget 2019 based on that,” he said. “A lot of the smaller, independent institutions receive a very small amount of government funding and furthermore run deficits. […] The most important thing that we looked at was an institution’s ability to bear.”

If the government had allocated a five per cent reduction across the board, Nicolaides said that there would have been “severe consequences.”

“We need to be very thoughtful and diligent about how we roll this out,” he said. “It means things will be applied differentially but I believe that’s the best way forward.”

The MacKinnon Report, released in August, gave hints about the cuts to come. The Report discussed the necessity of an entrepreneurial approach to education and for Nicolaides, this approach is two-fold. Firstly, it’s about connecting education to employment and secondly, it’s about emphasizing choice.

“It means ensuring that our students have a lot of options and are clear that there are a lot of options available to them,” he said. “One of the things that’s been a top priority for us is to strengthen apprenticeship learning in the province. There are other options for them to consider when looking at a post-secondary program — options that lead to highly successful and rewarding careers.”

The budget allocated $10 million in funding to Women Building Futures, an organization dedicated to helping women enter the skilled trades. A further $1 million will be allocated to trade scholarships available to 1,000 high school students.

According to Nicolaides, there are about 3,000 skilled tradespeople retiring every year. He also cited high youth unemployment in the province as a reason for focusing attention and investment on the trades. 

“There’s no question — the number one priority for us is jobs. I just reflect back on my own time as an undergraduate student at the U of C and my biggest concern — which I know is probably one of the biggest concerns for many students there as well — is that they’ll be able to find a successful and rewarding career after graduation.”

With all the focus on trades and skilled worker training, should liberal arts students be worried?

Nicolaides says absolutely not.

“I’m a liberal arts degree holder myself,” he said. “Nobody discounts the importance of a strong liberal arts program and as we move to a modern economy we’re seeing more artificial intelligence and robotics, it’s more important now than ever that we are developing strong and diverse thinkers to be able to adapt to a fast-paced world.”

The MacKinnon Report outlines a number of metrics that could potentially be used to determine funding, including tracking whether or not graduates are successful in the labour market and the percentage of graduates who report being employed after graduation. While Nicolaides says the broad goal of establishing these metrics is to help develop a stronger connection between education and jobs, they aren’t set in stone and won’t be rolled out just yet. Nicolaides says he’s in consultation with student groups to develop them going forward.

“I’m in conversation with our student leaders, including representatives from the U of C, to discuss what those metrics should look like and whether we need to look at and develop metrics in our new funding model that strengthen the quality of teaching, strengthen the quality of the student experience — so there are a number of things that we can look at,” he said. “At the end of the day, our priority is to ensure that our students are getting the skills and knowledge that they need in order to find rewarding careers for themselves.

“There was a report, recently, out of Ontario, that showed about a quarter of post-secondary graduates lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. I’m not sure if that’s the case in Alberta, but I think it draws attention to the fact that we need to stay focused on ensuring our post-secondary system is providing our students with the skills that they need and that the labour market is looking for so that they can be productive members of society and find those rewarding careers.”

As for how students will pay for the rising cost of education, Budget 2019 indicates that there will be no reduction in scholarships or availability of student aid. In fact, Nicolaides says there will be an additional $50 million available for student loans. The six-month grace period on interest payments will also remain unchanged.

“It’s important for us to ensure that Alberta continues to have the most generous student aid provisions in the entire country,” he said. “I really do believe we can create a more efficient system that does not punish students.”

What would he say to students who are still worried about cuts to funding and increased costs?

“I would tell them, first and foremost that I recognize that these are challenging times. These are challenging times for so many Albertans and we absolutely have to take action now to correct the situation because my biggest worry is that if we don’t act now we’ll quickly get into a situation that will be completely unsustainable,” said Nicolaides. “We need some change. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We have to roll up our sleeves and make some changes. I do recognize that some of those changes may be challenging for some of our students.”

Nicolaides said he entered the last election out of concern for his two young children, and a desire to leave them a better province. He’s optimistic that, not only can his government ensure a financially sustainable and high-quality post-secondary education system, but an improved overall situation for the province going forward. 

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel and I truly believe that things will turn around. It’s not really an option — things have to turn around,” he said. “I believe it’s our responsibility to give the next generation a better province.”

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