The University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean has been a home for French education for more than 100 years, but now, thanks to reduced funding by the Alberta government and a freeze on reserve funds, nearly half of its courses could be axed.
In February, the president of the school’s student group — Association des universitaires de la Faculté Saint-Jean — found out the school was facing financial trouble.
“They informed us of all the big issues that were coming down — the $1.6-million budget deficit, and the 44 per cent cut in our course offerings,” Natalie Herkendaal said.
Dean Pierre-Yves Mocquais, the campus’ dean and executive officer, said the financial challenges mean certain classes had to be cut while others were combined.
“We are cutting 77 course sections out of 409,” he said.
But even that will not be enough to cover the shortfall Campus Saint-Jean is facing following cuts to the Campus Alberta grants given to post-secondary institutions.
In the case of Campus Saint-Jean, Mocquais said 25 to 30 per cent of the school’s operating dollars come from the federal government, through the Official Language in Education Program.
The school saves some of this money in a reserve to make up for shortfalls it anticipates encountering over the following school year. But Mocquais and the University of Alberta say the province is not letting them use what’s in their reserves.
“The provincial government is saying Campus Saint-Jean cannot use federal money, which is very strange,” Mocquais said.
Mocquais said the campus needs to access $1.5 million to $1.8 million from its reserve fund.
Campus Saint-Jean is the westernmost French university in Canada, attracting students from British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
“It is the epicentre of the Francophone culture in all of Alberta,” Herkendaal said.
About 1,000 students use Campus Saint-Jean, and enrollment has been growing.
Biology and education are two of the most popular programs, Mocquais said.
When it comes to French educators, there’s already a shortage in Alberta.
“Without the ability to have an education program that is producing high-quality French immersion and Francophone teachers, all of a sudden, the impact is we don’t have qualified teachers in our schools,” explained Sheila Risbud, president of the French Canadian Association of Alberta (ACFA).
ACFA recently launched a campaign called Save Saint-Jean.
Risbud said Albertans should take note of what’s happening to the school, and what it means for diversity. She points out half of the campus’ population is English-speaking.
“It impacts not only the Francophone community, but the growing number of Albertans who think that speaking a second language is important, and are looking for better job opportunities,” Risbud said.
She noted that people can help raise awareness around the issue by writing their MLA, the minister of advanced education or the premier. They can also share the Save Saint-Jean campaign on social media or participate in one of the upcoming townhalls.
As a physics students, Herkendaal said a reduction in available courses will mean taking more courses in English at the main University of Alberta campus.
Herkendaal fears that could deter students from enrolling at the French institution.
“It really does make me nervous for the future of Campus Saint-Jean,” she said.
Over the last five days, Global News repeatedly asked to speak to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides but our interview requests were denied.
His press secretary, Laurie Chandler, refused to answer any questions related to post-secondary reserve funds.
Chandler did issue a general statement about post-secondary funding.
“The minister has been clear, our institutions are to look at finding cost-savings and efficiencies in areas that do not impact the student experience,” the statement reads. “For example, Alberta’s spending on administration is $8,372 per full-time student where British Columbia spends $4,233 and Ontario spends $4,910.
“Surely university administration can look at its own expenses to find savings.
“We do not dictate how the Campus Alberta Grant is allocated to specific faculties, this is an internal decision of the University of Alberta. They are in the best position to respond to this matter.”
The University of Alberta said it is the Alberta government which is preventing access to reserve funding.
“The province will not allow the university to spend existing reserves,” wrote Hallie Brodie, the university’s issues and strategic communications manager.
“The inability to draw on reserves is preventing the faculty from spending anticipated federal funding as planned.”
Global News reached out to the commissioner of Official Languages in Canada, Raymond Théberge, for his thoughts on the situation Campus Saint-Jean is facing.
“These cuts are a significant setback and pose a threat to the future of French language post-secondary education in Alberta,” he wrote.
Théberge said it’s important for all levels of government to support Francophones.
“Campus Saint-Jean contributes to the overall development of the Franco-Albertan community.,” he wrote. “It also meets a basic need to provide a variety of post-secondary programs in French at a time when the demand for these programs continues to rise.”
Théberge added that he will work to try and help the school with its financial issues.
“I believe every effort should be made to ensure adequate financing of official language minority communities’ post-secondary institutions across the country.”