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Feature_Bill18_Nazeefa Ahmed
Graphic by Nazeefa Ahmed

What is Bill 18 and how does it impact University of Calgary students?

By Vama Saini and Nazeefa Ahmed, May 2 2024—

Bill 18 — the Provincial Priorities Act — proposed by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, is a piece of legislation aimed at giving the Alberta government the authority to review and approve any agreements between the federal government and provincial entities, including post-secondary institutions and municipalities. 

“Through this legislation, cities and other provincially funded and regulated entities must have provincial government approval to receive federal funding. Albertans are entitled to their fair share of federal tax dollars and to have those dollars spent on Albertans’ priorities. We will ensure that happens,” said Smith, introducing Bill 18 to the first reading.

If passed, the bill would grant the Alberta government authority to review and potentially veto any agreements between federal entities and provincial institutions, including post-secondary education establishments. 

Smith has stated that the primary objective behind Bill 18 is to ensure a balanced representation of political perspectives within academic research and municipal initiatives. The rationale provided is to prevent what is perceived as federal overreach into provincial affairs and to safeguard against the alleged biases in federal funding distribution, particularly in academic research.

However, critics argue that the implications of Bill 18 could be far-reaching and detrimental. Academic leaders and faculty associations are particularly worried that under this legislation, federal research funding subject to provincial approval could open the door to political interference in academic research, ultimately undermining institutional independence and integrity.

In response to criticisms, Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney asserts that the government’s intention is not to halt federal funding to post-secondary institutions but rather to gather information on federal funds flowing into the province.

“I don’t believe the intent of this bill is to stop funding. It’s to have an understanding and knowledge and information about what is being funded. We want to make sure that this funding does align with provincial priorities,” she said at the legislature.

New Democrat Party Response

In a statement to the Gauntlet, MLA Rhiannon Hoyle, Alberta NDP critic for Advanced Education, highlighted the potential fallout of Bill 18 and warned of its implications for federal research funding and the future of academic research within the province.

“Bill 18’s overreach into post-secondary education would be disastrous to the reputation of Alberta’s expert researchers and highly respected academics,” Hoyle stated. 

If enacted, the legislation would grant the Alberta government authority to vet agreements between federal agencies and provincial entities like universities and municipalities, potentially putting research projects at risk of political interference.

“Currently, Alberta boasts some of the top universities, colleges, and technical training institutes in Canada. They’ve earned these reputations because of the quality of research they do, and federal grants fund a large portion of this research,” said Hoyle.

Hoyle’s critique also extended to Sawhney’s recent admission of being unaware of how $500 million in federal grant funding to Alberta post-secondary institutions was being utilized. 

“If Minister Sawhney truly couldn’t find this information then certainly, had she done the right thing and consulted with post-secondary institutions before the introduction of Bill 18, she wouldn’t be scratching her head about where $500 million in federal grant funding is going,” said Hoyle. 

Hoyle asserted that this lack of awareness reflects poorly on the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) grasp of essential information.

“The UCP has access to all the information they need regarding federal funding. This bill is about gatekeeping and ensuring ideological control,” said Hoyle.

The broader financial context adds urgency to these concerns. Hoyle drew attention to the UCP’s recent $80 million cut in funding to post-secondary institutions.

“They have defunded student aid grants and they have defunded adult learning. This means that students will either have to pay more for their education or opt out of getting an education altogether.” Hoyle explained. 

“Since the provincial budget, universities have experienced unprecedented financial strain and are relying more heavily on tuition fees to sustain operations,” said Hoyle. 

In response to these challenges, Hoyle proposes a reassessment of Bill 18 and genuine consultations with post-secondary stakeholders.

“First of all, I want to see the UCP reconsider the bill altogether,” said Hoyle. 

“Secondly, I want to see the UCP host real consultation with post-secondaries. This government is notorious for failing to consult with Albertans, whether that’s doctors, workers, families, or educators. The UCP continues to refuse to sit down with the Albertans who they were elected to represent, and it’s resulting in legislation that undermines our institutions and everyday Albertans,” Hoyle continued. 

Students’ Union (SU) response

Outgoing SU President Shaziah Jinnah Morsette notes how the bill does not accomplish anything new other than trying to control relationships between provincial institutions and the federal government. 

“[Bill 18] is a mechanism to extend oversight and control without gaining a single dollar in the process,” said Morsette. 

Student researchers participating in the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) for summer research may be funded by federal grants. In total, 35 per cent of the U of C’s research funding comes from the federal government. 

Morsette believes that the Bill 18 is a continuation of previous UCP government policy, such as cutting funding to the U of C.   

“This government has again cut a lot of support to students, has cut funding to the institution and now wants to extend control to other sources of funding coming into the tri-agencies which is an arm’s length government body.”

Morsette states that legislation like Bill 18 has not been seen in Alberta and the effect is to be determined. 

“We are entering a bit of a new landscape potentially here,” said Morsette. “The Government of Alberta clearly isn’t content cutting their contributions to post-secondaries and students in this province but they want to have a hand in controlling other sources of revenue to this institution.”

Morsette was the president of the SU for the 2023-24 academic terms and notes how the minister Sawhney has not responded to the SU’s monthly requests for a meeting. 

“We have been requesting a meeting with minister Sawhney since last October and have been continually rebuffed,” said Morsette. “It is important for the minister to hear concerns from undergraduate students at the U of C.”

More information about Bill 18 can be found on the Legislative Assembly of Alberta website.  

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