Universities fear Alberta gatekeeping bill will threaten academic freedom

Click to play video: 'Academics slam Alberta’s proposed Bill 18'
Academics slam Alberta’s proposed Bill 18
WATCH ABOVE: As Premier Danielle Smith doubles down on her plan to intervene in post-secondary funding, academics say the plan could be disastrous. Breanna Karstens-Smith reports. – Apr 15, 2024

A national organization of post-secondary teachers is calling on Alberta to either change a proposed gatekeeping bill or scrap it altogether.

The bill would give the province the right to veto federal agreements with provincial bodies, including post-secondary schools.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers says such political intervention threatens academic freedom given Premier Danielle Smith has said she wants to ensure funding aligns with provincial priorities.

Executive director David Robinson says research is best served when based on scientific merit rather than political ideology.

“Applying a political litmus test to research funding is an unprecedented attack on scientific independence, research integrity and academic freedom,” Robinson said. “Bill 18 opens the door to political censorship that has no place in a democratic society such as ours.”

Smith believes the federal government intervenes in federal funding for post-secondary research, prioritizing left-leaning projects.

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“The consistent message all of the premiers have is how frustrating it is that the federal government has a huge list of tasks that are in their area of jurisdiction, and yet they keep wanting to interfere with ours and tell us what to do and dictate to us what the programs will be,” she said at an unrelated news conference on Thursday.

Smith went on to say many professors have told her that they are not getting research grants, claiming it’s because their proposals don’t agree with the federal government’s ideology. Smith also said that some professors want to hire people “on the basis of merit” and are refused grant money because of this.

“I made a reference in the chamber yesterday of a professor in 2021 who kept saying, even though he was of Indian origin, because he was hiring people based on merit, he had several research grants refused,” Smith said.

“He believes that there’s an ideology that goes behind the funding that does not allow for full and robust debate at universities.”

When asked if the proposed Bill 18 will have a chilling effect on academic research, Smith claims that there is already an impact.

“There already is a certain perspective that’s funded and another perspective that’s not,” she said. “There already are graduate students and professors saying that they’re not allowed to speak freely, so that chill is already there.

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What we’re trying to do is to understand just how much of that is being funded by the federal government, so that we can address it.

“One way is to look at the per capita amount of grants coming here and see if we’re getting our fair share. That’s what we do with all of our programs. And I bet your dollars to donuts, we are not getting our fair share of per capita funding.

“We’ve been very concerned about having academic freedom and students having free speech at universities … This is just an extension of us looking at and making sure that we maintain that environment. Academia is ground zero in shaping opinion because it’s the professors who are out there making commentary.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta law would require provincial permission for city deals with feds'
Alberta law would require provincial permission for city deals with feds

Earlier this week, other academics in Alberta voiced their concerns over the proposed bill.

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“I believe it will create barriers to funding the important research our academic institutions do,” said Dr. Andy Knight, an international relations professor with the University of Alberta.

Appearing at a news conference with the Alberta NDP, the political scientist said his research has been supported by Conservative politicians Ralph Klein and Peter MacKay.

“I wanted to find ways to end genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing,” Knight said. “It’s not motivated by political partisanship.”

Researchers apply for federal funding through peer-reviewed, non-partisan agencies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Two PhD students at the University of Alberta crunched the numbers from that council to see what it funds.

“Even within the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funding, management, business and administrative studies received more dollars than disciplines the UCP would consider ‘more Liberal,'” PhD student Andrea Dekeseredy said.

Dekeseredy is currently looking into labour and delivery care in rural Alberta. She fears for her research.

“We do what we do to make our province a better place. That funding allows us to continue doing our work.”

There has not been consultation on the proposed legislation. The province said that will be done over the summer.

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“I’m going to gather all the data from the post-secondaries and from the publicly available information to make that it can at least have a starting point to analyze all of the grants and the funding that has come in to see if there is indeed a problem,” Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney said earlier this week.

The bill is still being debated in the legislature. It is expected to be implemented next year.

Robinson says if the bill passes, his group will explore going to court to challenge it.

— with files from Global News.

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