Alberta budget 2021: Alberta universities eyeing tuition hikes, campus changes as funding model evolves

Click to play video: 'Alberta forecasts $18.2 billion deficit in new budget'
Alberta forecasts $18.2 billion deficit in new budget
Alberta's government has tabled its 2021 budget, forecasting a $18.2 billion deficit for the year ahead. Heather Yourex-West breaks down the province's spending strategy, which includes a $1.25-billion COVID-19 contingency provision, and what's missing from the high-stakes plan. – Feb 25, 2021

The University of Calgary says a third consecutive year of funding cuts from the provincial government will have impacts on campus and community programs.

In the budget tabled Thursday, the Alberta UCP said in the 2020-2021 year, own-source revenue for post-secondary institutions is expected to cover 47 per cent of schools’ operating costs.

By 2023-2024, the government wants that to reach 52 per cent.

The U of C said the budget cut the university’s operating budget by $25 million, meaning since 2019, the university’s total budget has been cut by 18 per cent.

The school said the reductions bring the operating budget to less than it was in 2011, when, according to the university, it had 4,300 fewer students on its campus.

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To date, the University said it has taken several steps to reduce costs and increase revenues, including:

  • reducing the workforce by 600 staff positions
  • freezing management and professional service wages
  • increasing tuition
  • eliminating, slowing or deferring more than 200 initiatives and projects
  • reducing maintenance and facilities upgrades and preventative maintenance activities
  • reducing spending on travel, engagement, events and marketing
  • reducing and cancelling IT projects and delaying purchasing of new equipment

“A third year of funding reductions will have implications for our campus community and programs,” university president and vice-chair Ed McCauley said.

“But in this environment, we will continue to prioritize an outstanding student experience, driving economic growth and recovery in Alberta, and finding ways to support and give back to our city and our province during these difficult times.”

The school’s students union said it was “disappointed” by the budget, which it called a “continued lack of support” from the government, and that silver linings were “non-existent.”

The U of C Students’ Union said students can expect to see their tuition increase by 22.5 per cent by the time the budget runs its course, and by eliminating the tuition tax credit, the government is putting another $200-million tax increase on students and their families.

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“If students were to receive a better, higher-quality education by paying more, that would be easier to swallow, but the university is being forced to cut staff in addition to raising tuition,” union president Frank Finley said.

“Online learning also doesn’t provide the same campus experience. In short, thanks to these continued cuts, students are paying a lot more and getting far less.”

The union said it’s also disappointed to see that no supports were put in place to help students secure work in the summer, after a tough year employment-wise for graduates and returning students.

“Students are struggling to cover the cost of their education already and a lack of summer opportunities means they will go further into debt and be unable to even cover their basic expenses as well,” vice-president external Marley Gillies said.

“We encouraged the province to bring back the STEP program or a similar student job program. Our calls have fallen on deaf ears.”

Big changes coming to Mount Royal

Meanwhile, Mount Royal University, which said it didn’t see a large cut to its budget, celebrated the budget and the $50 million promised to its capital projects which, paired with a private donation, will see the old conservatory renovated into classrooms, and the refurbishment of the university’s old library.

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“This will allow us to create a space that it will really focus on active learning, work, integrated learning,” president and vice-chancellor Tim Rahilly said.

“It’s going to allow us to increase our full-time student population by more than 1,000 students.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta Budget 2021: Answering your questions surrounding the provincial budget'
Alberta Budget 2021: Answering your questions surrounding the provincial budget

Rahilly said the university wasn’t surprised by the government’s expectation that post-secondary schools would be responsible for more of their operating costs, and said MRU has been working toward that goal for some time now.

“I think the government has been very clear in terms of its desire,” he said.

“I absolutely understand the concerns that students would have around the cost of attendance and tuition.”

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Rahilly said MRU approved a tuition increase days before the budget, which he said was more COVID-19-related than the result of provincial funding.

He said the school is relying on food services, parking, the bookstore and other campus-centered revenue options for funding, but admitted that is a challenging plan with fewer students on campus during the pandemic.

“I think the trend is fairly clear. The government has articulated that pretty clearly. You know, hopefully when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, it’s something that we can achieve,” Rahilly said.

Rahilly said because of the pandemic, the school is in a “constant cost-reduction mode,” and could not say whether further staff reductions or impacts to programming would come in the future.

University of Lethbridge students see tuition hike

Farther south, at the University of Lethbridge, students can also expect their tuition to increase by seven per cent this coming year.

University president and vice-chancellor Mike Mahon said while the lack of funding didn’t come as a surprise, it was a blow to a sector he believes is essential to building a stronger Alberta.

“You know, the reason I think we’re most disappointed is because we really see ourselves as part of the solution for the transition in the Alberta economy,” he said Friday.

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Mahon said the school is starting to worry about accessibility for post-secondary education in Alberta, and whether students will be able to afford the fees that come with advanced education.

“We still, in the country, have the lowest participation rate in post-secondary, and so we just don’t see this as part of the long-term solution,” he said.

For the time being, Mahon said there are concerns about the university’s “ability to offer the same level of student experience” as it faces an uphill financial climb.

“We are going to have to look at things like class sizes, because we’ve… always historically been an institution known for being able to maintain smaller class sizes — better student to faculty ratio — that’s an area that we’re going to have to look at,” he said.

Speaking to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Finance Minister Travis Toews was asked what the UCP was doing to attract and keep young people in Alberta, to which he answered that Budget 2021 “continues us down the path of supporting our post-secondary institutions.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews discusses 2021 provincial budget'
Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews discusses 2021 provincial budget

He said the MacKinnon Panel report found that the cost of educating Alberta post-secondary students was very high, compared to costs in B.C, Quebec and Ontario.

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“We all have a responsibility to ensure that we’re delivering services, including our post-secondary education opportunities, most efficiently,” Toews said.

“I know that post-secondary institutions across the province — and these are world class institutions we are so fortunate to have them — are working hard at making adjustments so that they can deliver most cost-effectively. Minister (of Advanced Education Demetrios) Nicolaides is working on a new funding approach for post-secondary institutions.

“That approach I believe, will result in additional real focus on programming where there are very strong labor market outcomes.”

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