Alberta universities concerned about bill mandating provincial approval of federal funding

Click to play video: 'Alberta post-secondary institutions ponder effects of provincial priorities act'
Alberta post-secondary institutions ponder effects of provincial priorities act
WATCH: There are questions and concerns on post-secondary campuses across Alberta over the proposed Provincial Priorities Act. It's modeled after a law in Quebec that prevents municipalities from directly dealing with the federal government without provincial approval, but Alberta’s law goes much further to include public post-secondary institutions. Adam MacVicar reports – Apr 11, 2024

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the Quebec law, which Alberta’s Provincial Priorities Act is modelled after, did not include post-secondary institutions. We regret the error.

Incoming legislation that requires provincial approval of direct agreements with the federal government has universities in Alberta exploring potential impacts.

The Provincial Priorities Act, tabled Wednesday, prevents any direct agreements between the federal government and several provincial entities without approval from the Government of Alberta.

Those entities include municipalities, school boards, health authorities as well as post-secondary institutions.

However, the inclusion of colleges and universities wasn’t expected after provincial officials indicated the legislation would focus on municipalities.

“This was unexpected,” Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told Global News. “Even though it’s provincial jurisdiction and the province supplies grants to colleges and universities, much of the research funding flows through federal agencies.”

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Much of that federal research funding comes from the three Canadian government research funding agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

During a press conference ahead of tabling the bill, Premier Danielle Smith took aim at the SSHRC funding, and claimed the federal government is using ideology to dictate funding.

“How are they politically interfering by using their federal spending power to fund certain research projects? That’s what we’re worried about … That they fund in a certain way based on a certain ideology,” Smith told reporters.

Alberta’s advanced education ministry said the new bill will not impact academic freedom in the province.

“The desire is not to impede academic freedom,” Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney told reporters Thursday.

“We want to make sure that this funding does align with provincial priorities,” Sawhney said. But she added, “I can’t think of a single grant stream that’s going to the post-secondaries that would be problematic.”

The primary universities in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge all confirmed to Global News the institutions are working with the Government of Alberta to better understand the legislation, and potential impacts to funding.

According to the University of Calgary, the federal government provided $190 million in research funding last year, which is 35 per cent of the total research revenue at the school.

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“Bringing this funding to Alberta generates economic activity, creates jobs and helps to provide our community access to world-class facilities and services,” a spokesperson for the university said in a statement.

At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, more than one-third of its research funding last year came from federal agencies to the tune of more than $223 million.

“Beyond research funding, federal dollars provide job skills programming and workforce development, including through French language education at Campus St. Jean,” a U of A spokesperson said in a statement to Global News.

“These projects and programs make a tangible difference in the lives of people in Alberta and beyond, from discovering life-saving medical treatments to new technology that fuels the economy of tomorrow.”

The University of Lethbridge said federal funding also makes up a “significant portion of the investment that supports research and scholarly activities” at that institution.

“This funding also creates training and work experience opportunities for students and helps ensure researchers have the facilities and equipment they need,” the U of L said in a statement. “Research activities at the University of Lethbridge are critical in ensuring the social and economic health of the communities we serve.”

Bratt refuted the premier’s claim there was ideology behind the funding and noted there is a comprehensive application process to receive research dollars.

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“I’ve received a variety of SSHRC funding over the over the years on all sorts of different projects and I dare someone to come across and and connect them all with an ideological focus,” Bratt said. “I don’t think they’ve thought this through, at least as it relates to post-secondary.”

The University of Calgary Students’ Union is also raising concerns about the legislation and its potential impacts on students, already facing pressures from rising tuition and housing costs.

Shaziah Jinnah Morsette, the union’s president, told Global News the bill is creating “more uncertainty” and making it “more difficult “for students.

“The government of Alberta isn’t just content only slashing their contributions to post-secondaries and students in this province, but they want to have a hand on controlling any other sources of revenue and support as well,” she said.

The province indicated consultation with affected parties would take place over the summer with a goal of enacting the legislation early next year.

— with files from The Canadian Press.

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