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Cuts to post-secondary “short-sighted” and “embarrassing” says Alberta’s NDP

By Kristy Koehler, February 27 2021—

The United Conservative Party (UCP) tabled Budget 2021 in the legislature on Feb. 25 and Alberta’s Official Opposition is not very pleased with cuts to post-secondary education. 

NDP leader Rachel Notley spoke out against the post-secondary cut in a Facebook Live session, calling it “incredibly short-sighted.”

“It is damaging for our province because post-secondary education is utterly critical for the economic future of our province in a multitude of ways,” said Notley. “We need young people to stay in Alberta and we need them to get a good education.”

Notley said things have become harder on young students because not only are rising tuition fees making it more expensive to attend post-secondary, but the funding cuts directly to institutions are making education less effective.

“Research is fundamentally undercut and the degree to which post-secondary can partner with job creators and entrepreneurs is also fundamentally undercut,” she said. 

David Eggen, Advanced Education Critic and MLA for Edmonton-North West, spoke to the Gauntlet about his thoughts on the budget. 

“Just at the time when we need our universities and polytechnics and colleges to help with economic recovery and for training and re-training, they’ve taken a third cut in a row. Three budgets. Three cuts,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”

Eggen said in sitting through the budget speech, at a time when post-secondary is sorely needed for Alberta’s economic recovery, the sector wasn’t mentioned at all. 

“I can see why — they continue to cut and it’s embarrassing,” he said.

The UCP’s 2021-24 Fiscal Plan notes a recommendation by the MacKinnon Panel that “post-secondary institutions explore broader revenue streams to reduce reliance on the government, including asking students to pay a higher proportion for their post-secondary education.”

And indeed they are. The University of Calgary’s Board of Governors voted to increase tuition in December. For the second consecutive year, students have faced a seven per cent increase. 

“Students have high levels of debt coming out of Alberta’s colleges and universities and this will only increase exponentially with tuition increases,” said Eggen. “At a time when we want to encourage people to go to school and go back to school we’ve built this 40-foot wall that makes it more expensive.”

The UCP forecasted that in 2020-21, own-source revenue for post-secondary institutions would cover 47 per cent of operating expenses. By 2023-24, the UCP wants to see own-source revenue rise to 52 per cent. 

The budget also reiterated the UCP’s plans to roll out performance-based funding metrics, wherein a portion of an institution’s operating grant funding will be contingent on achieving specific metrics. While they haven’t been set in stone yet, it’s been made clear that labour-market outcomes will be an integral component.

Eggen says that stubbornly clinging to this notion, especially during an economic downturn makes even less sense than before. 

“You are measuring a program according to how many jobs it might produce and then you have this same government without any jobs plan,” he said. “It’s another way to cut programs. It’s another way to cut budgets in our universities and colleges — don’t be fooled.”

Several post-secondary institutions did receive added infrastructure funding, but sustained further cuts to their operating grants. 

U of C president Ed McCauley sent an email to the campus community, detailing a reduction of $25 million, a decrease of six per cent of its operating budget. McCauley says it will result in “forcing difficult decisions by the campus community.”

Eggen, like Notley, worries that Alberta’s young population will leave the province in search of cheaper education and more economic opportunity elsewhere. 

“If they cant find it here they’ll go elsewhere and when people go elsewhere they often don’t come back,” he said. “Everybody likes to talk about oil and gas as being our most important resource — really, it’s our young population. Post-secondary is the key to retaining and building a good quality of life for them.”

During her Facebook Live event, Notley had some strong words about the priorities of the UCP in this budget:

“The true Alberta advantage is not underneath the ground, it’s walking on top of it each and every day — we have the youngest, most diverse, best-educated population in the country. This is who is going to lead us into economic recovery but it’s not going to happen if we push them out by saying we don’t value education and we don’t value your right to get one.”

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