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Outgoing president says University of Alberta essential to province’s success

University of Alberta president touts resilience during financial hardship
The University of Alberta helped build the province once, and it will do it again, according to outgoing president David Turpin. As the U of A grapples with massive funding cuts and changes forced by the pandemic, Turpin sat down with Global News to share his thoughts on the challenges ahead.

As they face battles on two fronts, the University of Alberta’s outgoing president says they will survive.

“This is a university that will endure. We’ve got some tough stuff ahead of us,” said David Turpin.

“But universities endure.”

Alberta post-secondaries are grappling with massive funding cuts and a pandemic that has forced them to rethink an age-old lecture hall and lab model.

READ MORE: Edmonton university students demand tuition freeze as remote learning continues into fall

Turpin says the U of A helped build the province once, and will do it again.

“The University of Alberta has powered the economy of this province for over 100 years,” he said.

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“The fact that we have an oil and gas industry here in this province is because of patents developed here at the University of Alberta 100 years ago.”

And he sees a major role for the U of A in future economies.

READ MORE: Oil and beef: Expert says Alberta must diversify as major industries hit by COVID-19

“Here we are, one of the world’s leading universities ranked in the top three globally in a number of areas of A.I. and we are pushing and developing this entire new economy that’s going to rely heavily on A.I.

“The University of Alberta and universities generally are absolutely fundamental to the future economic development of this province.”

Over the last few years, the University of Alberta’s top school rating has dropped.

According to the website QS Top University Rankings, of more than 1,000 universities around the world, the U of A went from the 90th spot in 2018 down to 119th in 2020.

“As students, this really hurts our future because when we go out to try and get jobs, our degree is worth less to employers,” said Rowan Ley, vice-president of the U of A Students’ Union. “China is investing dramatically in universities, and the number of universities in China that are moving up the rankings is truly remarkable.”

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Outgoing president says University of Alberta essential to province’s success
Outgoing president says University of Alberta essential to province’s success
“If you look across Canada, [universities] slipping in rankings is something that we’re seeing,” Turpin said. “So it’s really a message to governments across Canada about the importance of supporting post-secondary education and research at Canadian universities.”

But in Alberta, universities are facing cuts — 6.3 per cent in the last budget. Add in the impact of the pandemic and most universities are laying off staff and increasing tuition.

“Every one of those cuts greatly reduces the university’s abilities to attract the best faculty, to provide the best teaching and the best spaces,” Ley said.

The ministry of advanced education says Alberta spends more per student than other provinces and says it is committed to setting up students for success while saving taxpayers money. It points to millions of dollars being invested in new scholarships, student loans and other programs. That has the U of A looking for other options.

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“Government has now decided to shift its priorities for funding and we’re going to see a major reduction in funding over the years and an increase in reliance [on] alternative revenue streams,” Turpin said.

Turpin says the U of A has a plan in place to restructure and become more efficient, but adds students will see a very different environment come fall.

READ MORE: Incoming U of A president pitches fewer faculties, administration after provincial budget cuts

Reflecting on his tenure, he counts as highlights the high rate of employability among grads, a student population from around the world and an increase in of the number of Indigenous students on campus.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the work that the people here at the U of A have done over the last five years. It’s been a real honour to play a role in stewarding this great institution, and we’ll continue to make a real difference in building a better community, a better Canada and a better world.

The university faces a $110-million budget cut for the coming school year.

President-elect Bill Flanagan assumes the role July 1.

–With files from Global News’ Chris Chacon