As students across Alberta head back to universities and colleges, post-secondary institutions are taking a look at the recommendations laid out in the recently released MacKinnon Panel report on the province’s finances.
According to the report, Alberta spent $5.6 billion in 2018-19 on post-secondary education, and funding has grown by an average four per cent annually over the last decade.
The report recommends the provincial government lift the university tuition freeze, and work with institutions “to set an overall future direction and goals for the post-secondary system along with appropriate governance models.”
The panel also recommends post-secondary schools work to have less reliance on government grants, and receive more funding from tuition and alternative revenue
sources. It also wants “more entrepreneurial approaches to how programs are financed and delivered.”
“It’s important to us that any increases to tuition are accompanied by tangible, measurable benefits to student experience on campus.”
According to the report, Alberta universities and colleges depend more on government grant funding (54 per cent) than their counterparts in British Columbia (44 per cent) and Ontario (36 per cent), but schools in Quebec rely more on those grants (62 per cent).
“I think what’s clear in this report is our cost to deliver advanced education is simply too high relative to the way other provinces deliver it, and so we need to find ways to deliver it more efficiently and effectively,” Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said. “Every institution will play a part in delivering on that commitment.”
The panel’s argument is that higher funding doesn’t always lead to better results and points to a high dropout rate in Alberta, which one expert believes is due to the lucrative jobs available in the oilpatch.
“It’s often been attributed to the very strong labour market we’ve had, particularly in the smaller towns and rural areas,” said Kevin McQuillan, the School of Public Policy’s academic director. “People have not necessarily seen the need to get a post-secondary credential and yet be able to have a good, working career.”
“In most provinces, post-secondary participation rates rise with rising unemployment and fall with a booming economy — not so for Alberta,” the report said.
Nine of Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions fell below an average completion rate of 60 per cent and one institution, Portage College in Lac La Biche, had a completion rate of 40 per cent.
In this case, the panel recommends that the government should assess the financial viability of the province’s post-secondary institutions, and the government should “move quickly to address the future of those post-secondary institutions that do not appear to be viable in future.”
“Concentrating funding to some institutions rather than spreading limited provincial funding over the large number of institutions may be a more effective way of delivering post-secondary education and achieving better results,” the panel wrote.
That section of the report is raising concern that some post-secondary institutions in the province could possibly be faced with closing their doors in the future, particularly in smaller communities.
“It certainly says in the report that there are some institutions that may not be sustainable and to me, that would suggest the possibility of closure,” McQuillan said. “I think the real question will be what can you provide to students in those communities and in surrounding communities if an institution were closed.”
“I think we always have room for improvement but that doesn’t mean that you will close down institutions, close the doors of education on young Albertans who want to get education and get ahead,” said Irfan Sabir, the NDP MLA for Calgary-McCall.
According to the report, the panel’s most significant finding is that Alberta’s post-secondary system lacks direction.
McQuillan welcomes a look into what programs are being offered in Alberta and if changes need to be made to align schools in the province with the direction the economy is headed.
“As we move to a different economy where some of the more blue-collar, manual types of jobs that paid well may not be as available in the future, it does raise the question whether that will change people’s ideas about the importance of post-secondary education for their children,” McQuillan said.
The Ministry of Finance has said the government won’t implement all 26 recommendations from the panel but said each recommendation will be evaluated.