Concerns are growing regarding how Alberta’s provincial budget cuts are going to “disproportionally” hit the University of Alberta.
The government’s new budget reduced its spending to post-secondary institutions from $5.47 billion in 2019-20 down to $5.04 billion in 2021-22.
While the official budget did not provide a breakdown on how each institution will be affected, University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan says that school will be facing a $60.1-million cut, almost one half of the total post-secondary slashing down by the UCP in the latest provincial budget.
“There’s no question, it’s a very challenging time for the university,” Flanagan said.
“These are cuts of unprecedented magnitude for the university.”
In a blog post Flanagan wrote following the release of the budget details, he said the new cuts equal out to a “$170M reduction in our provincial funding over the last two-and-a-half years.”
On Wednesday, Flanagan said the university is focusing on a “proactive” restructuring of its academic and administrative programs, including reducing administrative costs by over $95 million this year.
“We’re responding in a very proactive way, in a way that will set up the university for long-term success,” he said.
Cuts could affect university quality, rankings
University groups worry these cuts will lead to consequences for the school that some say are already being felt.
“It’s incredibly frustrating and it’s incredibly difficult to be at the university right now,” said Ricardo Acuna, the president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta.
“People are worried about the future for themselves.
“How they can continue to offer a world class education with the degree of cuts that are coming at the university?”
Acuna also points to a drop in world ranking for the university as a concern. He says that in 2018, it was considered to be in the top 100 post-secondary institutions in the world. For 2021, it has dropped to the 119th spot.
“These continued cuts will just slide us further on down those rankings,” Acuna said.
“(Staff are) spending less time supporting individual students… because they’ve lost their supports.
“They’re spending more time on administration. They’re spending more time doing work that needs to be done by research staff and research support staff.”
Demetrios Nicolaides, the province’s advanced education minister, denied any specific institutions were targeted.
“We looked at the funding levels per student for all our institutions, looked at how they compared to one another, and looked at how they compared to their competitors in other provinces. We’ve used that approach to determine funding reductions.”
The NDP’s education critic David Eggen said Wednesday that these decisions from the government that appear to target the university are unprecedented.
“We’ve built the reputation for the university as a world-class facility over many decades and this UCP government is compromising it here in a matter of months,” Eggen said.
Tuition costs rising as government funds cut
The University of Alberta Students Union says that not only are there worries about the quality of education, but also the rising costs for students.
“It’s a difficult time for students. The budget cuts have implicated a lot of negative effects for students,” student union president Joel Agarwal said.
“We need to be putting the message out there that investing in post secondary is in fact investing in the future of Alberta. Not just for today but for tomorrow.”
A 2019 report on provincial spending, from a panel chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, was highly critical of Alberta’s post-secondary spending.
Following that report, the Alberta government said in its 2021 budget documents that it was recommending post-secondary institutions “explore broader revenue streams,” but the government did cap tuition fee increases for 2022-23 at seven per cent.
Nicolaides said the government is working with the university on the revenue issues.
“The question of raising revenue is an important one, it’s an area we need to look at,” Nicolaides said.
“I have been very fortunate to have a strong working relationship with president Flanagan, and he’s been able to bring to the table a lot of very innovative ideas that can help free our institutions up from red tape and allow them to strengthen their own source strain revenue capacity.”
Flanagan said the strategy of focusing on administration doesn’t necessarily mean the students will see any difference in experience.
“We’re reducing out administrative costs so we can focus the maximum amount of our resources on sustaining and indeed improving the student experience,” Flanagan said. “And sustaining the research that makes the University of Alberta the great university that it is.”
Acuna noted that the government needs to realize the importance post-secondary research will have in the provincial recovery following the COVID-19 crisis.
“We can’t have a solid post-COVID economic recovery in Alberta without the research, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship that comes from a well-funded post-secondary education system,” Acuna said.
The 2021 budget did include a $20-million boost in government funding to the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.