U of C cutting medical spaces

Enrolments at the University of Calgary’s medical school are expected to be cut by as many as 40 students this fall despite an earlier provincial vow to graduate more health professionals.

Cuts to the number of students entering nursing and the Haskayne School of Business are also expected.

A funding freeze to postsecondary institutes will ensure the U of C’s faculty of medicine 2010 class of firstyear students will be signifi-cantly smaller than last year’s group of 180.

While administration wouldn’t confirm the exact number, students and other sources say about 40 fewer positions will be available.

"That is the likely scenario that we are hearing," said Rithesh Ram, president of the Calgary Medical Students’ Association. "It just seems very strange in a province where the polls are saying Albertans are concerned about health care and the need for more doctors."

The cuts are the second part in a double-whammy faced by the faculty of medicine, which, along with other professional U of C programs, is also facing a proposed $4,400 tuition increase.

Ram, a second-year medical student, and about 100 other medical students have signed and sent off a petition demanding a bigger funding commitment from the province, stressing that cuts will have a detrimental effect on health care in Alberta.

"We have a decreased physician workforce as it is. And it will continue to worsen. It’s a national problem, but it’s even worse in Alberta, Ram said. "And as baby boomers age, we’ll need more medical care."

Alan Harrison, U of C provost and vice-president academic, confirmed this fall’s medical school program will offer fewer spots than last year’s, but said the U of C is still in discussion with the province over what those numbers might look like.

"The government is in a difficult spot. They’re running a deficit budget," Harrison said.

"There were commitments made to some expansions that have only been partially fulfilled. And the government has had to reduce the level of funding originally committed to those programs."

The U of C is also expecting to cut student positions in other professional programs like nursing and business, Harrison added. Cuts in engineering and law, however, are not expected.

Harrison said rising student costs and the provincial government’s February budget cementing a zero per cent increase in funding over the next two years ensures the U of C faces huge challenges in raising revenue.

The U of C has faced a series of economic hurdles since the global recession hit, including a $40-million drop in the value of the school’s endowment funds last year. Departments continue to be told to trim budgets in the face of a $14.3-million shortfall.

This spring, the Alberta government confirmed a funding freeze to post-secondary institutes in its provincial budget, outlining a six per cent reduction to program expenses for Advanced Education in the coming financial year.

In response, the U of C has proposed tuition hikes in the thousands of dollars for professional programs — as high as $4,400 in medicine.

Charlotte Kingston, president of the U of C students’ union, said the medical school cuts go against what the province has said it would commit to this year.

"It seems contradictory to power funding into health care and then not power the funding that produces medical professionals."

Kingston said that now, and several years into the future, Alberta will be struggling more than ever with fewer health-care professionals, lower quality care and an aging workforce with decreased access to doctors.

That not only affects those people needing care, but all the companies affected by a workforce that’s less healthy, less productive, she said.

Advanced Education Minister Doug Horner said the funding challenges are shared by everyone in the province, but it doesn’t have to mean a cut in class sizes.

"We are still in discussion with the university," he said. "And we still intend to meet our targets."

Premier Ed Stelmach, in a February 2008 election campaign promise, vowed to graduate an additional 225 doctors annually across the province. But that pledge was quickly reduced to 68 more doctors annually by 2012 after the College of Physicians and Surgeons said the original number wasn’t workable given current funding.

This week as well, the University of Alberta’s medical school confirmed it will accept fewer students next September because of budget cuts.

Calling the financial situation "extremely difficult," the faculty dean asked students there to write to Horner in support of a proposed $3,400 annual tuition increase.


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