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Photo of Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides . // Photo courtesy of the Government of Alberta.

Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides talks new funding model

By Kristy Koehler, January 28 2020—

The United Conservative Party announced a change to the funding model for Alberta’s post-secondary institutions on Jan. 20. A new, performance-based funding model will begin April 1. 

The Gauntlet spoke with Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides regarding the new model. 

The Gauntlet: Why would a student support this new funding model?

Demetrios Nicolaides: That’s one of the most important tasks for the new funding model is to help ensure that it sets our students up for success. We have the highest youth unemployment rate in decades so it’s becoming increasingly difficult for students in the province to find rewarding careers. So, we need to work with our post-secondary institutions to help ensure that we’re building the strongest possible connection between their education and the labour market so that they’re set up for success in the best possible way. 

G: What is the purpose of a university education? Is it solely to find a job?

DN: It’s not solely to find a job. We have different institutions — we have comprehensive research universities, we have community colleges and polytechnics and all of them have a different mandate and a different role to play. I think that a university education is about developing oneself, strengthening skill sets including critical thinking skills, communication skills, becoming a stronger individual and as well, setting themselves up to find a rewarding career once they graduate. 

G:  How many metrics will be used to evaluate funding?

DN: The maximum number that we anticipate is about 20. In a lot of my research, review and analysis of performance-based funding systems for higher education around the world, one of the recurring themes and trends is a recognition that you can’t have too many metrics, otherwise it becomes too complicated. So, we wanted to ensure that we stay close to that 20 mark as an absolute maximum. It may be less, but I don’t think we should be looking at more than that. 

G: Will each institution have the same number of metrics?

DN: We’ll have a standard set of system-wide metrics, however the way in which they are weighted may be different. For example, there may be some metrics related to research capacity that will be particularly important for our research universities including the U of C. However, that metric may not be that appropriate for some of our other institutions. We will be weighing the metrics differently depending on the different mandate of each institution.

G: How many metrics do universities get to establish on their own?

DN: We’ve indicated that each university or institution will have the ability to define one of their own metrics. However, apart from that one, we are engaged in open dialogue and discussion and consultation with our institutions as we speak so they can provide some feedback on some of the metrics that we’re proposing and to suggest new ones. I’m really open to hearing different opinions and views that will help inform how the metrics will be defined.

G: Once the metrics are established, if they’re not working, how much opportunity will there be for revision?

DN: [There will be] quite a substantial amount of revision. We will evaluate and reweight the metrics and the targets on an annual basis — that’s important because we have to be flexible and adaptable and so we have to recognize that things change from year to year. There will be incredible flexibility to change the weighting from one year to the next.

G: Will the metrics ever be set in stone?

DN: I don’t believe so — that would be too rigid. We have to ensure that there’s flexibility and adaptability and I don’t foresee a situation in which that would occur.

G: If institutions don’t achieve their targets to earn 100 per cent of the funding, what will happen to the unallocated funds?

DN: That’s a particular topic that we want to discuss more through the round of consultation as we work on implementing this. We want to get a better idea from students and faculty and senior administrators as to what should happen to that in the instance where an institution doesn’t meet all of the targets and if there’s additional savings there, how that should be best allocated. I’m open to hearing some different perspectives so we can get on the same page. 

G: There’s some discussion that this new model is simply an opportunity to cut more funding to Advanced Education — how do you respond to the criticism that this is just a cut in disguise?

DN: The intent, as I mentioned, is to help ensure that we set our students up for success in the best possible way. And as well that we are maximizing transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars. We are in very challenging economic times and the Government of Alberta, through taxpayer dollars, provides over $2 billion to post-secondary institutions. We have to maximize accountability and transparency of how those dollars are being used in the system.

G: One of the proposed metrics at this point is to evaluate how graduates respond that their current main job is very or somewhat related to the skills and abilities they acquired during their program. For Faculty of Arts students, with degrees in history or philosophy who don’t end up in a role directly history- or philosophy-related, how does this impact the metric? Will skills such as critical thinking factor in?

DN: That’s a very important aspect. I’m someone who understands the importance of a liberal arts program and degree — I completed my Bachelors, Masters and PhD in liberal arts programming. I recognize how incredibly valuable it is. 

This is specifically why I believe it’s important that we look at metrics related to skillset and competency as well. The nature of work is changing — there was a recent report produced by the Conference Board of Canada last spring which showed that here in Alberta, because of technological change and automation, the need for so-called soft skills is increasing. Employers are looking for more individuals that have sharp critical thinking skills and strong communication skills, so it’s why, in the proposed metrics, I wanted to ensure there are metrics related to skillset and competency so that we’re able to capture that and reflect that as part of the performance-based model.

G: Why did you choose to make the funding model non-competitive, instead of phasing out institutions that are not performing?

DN: Each one of our institutions is unique. They have different mandates, they have different roles and visions and they service different communities. As an example, Northern Lakes College — which is based out of Slave Lake — their mandate is to provide access and academic programming to an area of the province that is a third of the entire province. It’s a massive territory so they provide academic programming to some of the most remote parts of our province and to some incredibly small communities. To stack them up against the U of C is not a fair way of evaluating success — success for Northern Lakes may look different than for the U of C. 

U of C again has a role to play in terms of advancing research and engaging in new discoveries, whereas other institutions may have a stronger mandate related to access and providing academic programming to some of the most remote parts of our province. They all have a different role and that needs to be reflected. 

G: The University of Calgary recently raised tuition as a result of the cuts and other institutions are likely to do the same. Could the university have found efficiencies elsewhere rather than relying on a tuition increase?

DN: Our universities do absolutely need to look at finding efficiencies and finding savings. I’ve been working very closely with all of our post-secondary institutions to ensure that they are working on reducing expenditures and bringing the cost of delivery down. You may note that the MacKinnon Panel Report that was produced last summer found that Alberta spent close to $8,000 per student on administrative costs whereas in BC it’s about $5,000 and Ontario $4,000. Some of the preliminary data seems to suggest that we’re spending more in Alberta in administrative costs and so I’ve been very clear with our post-secondary institutions that we need to look at reducing administrative costs and providing academic programming in a more efficient and streamlined manner. 

G: At what point will there be punitive actions for institutions that continue to raise tuition rather than finding administrative efficiencies?

DN: I think part of this is also reflected in the performance-based model. There’s some discussion around metrics related to administrative expenses and total costs to help ensure that our institutions are being as efficient as possible with taxpayer dollars — I do anticipate that to be an element of a new performance-based model.

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