May 19th, 2024

Education cuts based on bad data

By Letter to the Editor on December 9, 2021.

On April 29, the Alberta government released Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs, a document outlining a 10-year strategy for transforming the province’s post-secondary education system. Alberta 2030 purports to arise out of a report, commissioned by the government, from McKinsey & Company at a cost to taxpayers of $3.7 million. This report – financed by taxpayers – has still not been made public and the devil is often in the details.
In the tradition of “what is old is new again,” much of Alberta 2030 replicates part of the Klein government’s 1994 White Paper, New Directions for Adult Learning in Alberta. That paper also set out a ten-year plan for the province’s post-secondary system. Overshadowed by fiscal concerns, New Directionsdetailed plans for increased tuitions, more applied learning, and performance indicators, while also threatening collective bargaining and hinting at doing away with tenure.
These also form key elements of Alberta 2030, but like much of the UCP’s plans for spending (or rather lack thereof) it is sold to the public as necessary to deal with Alberta’s deficits and debt, and is supposedly indicative of the government’s taxpayer-friendly and fiscally-responsible approach.
In order to sell this broad package to the public, the UCP seems bent on convincing Alberta’s that their public services, post-secondary education in this case, are more costly than those in the three largest provinces; comparisons first made in the 2019 MacKinnon report. Because that report is still cited in government documents as justification for the draconian public funding cutbacks to Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, it is important to know if its data is correct. If that data were misleading, would the public still stand for this attack on the province’s universities, polytechnics and colleges?
Our recent report shows the disparities between Alberta and her comparator provinces, as reported in MacKinnon (and repeated in other government documents that followed) are largely overstated. MacKinnon says Alberta spent between $5,000 to $15,000 more per student than the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Using 2018-19 Statistics Canada data, the most recent at hand, we were able to provide a better and more nuanced comparison of expenditures between Alberta’s publicly-funded post-secondary institutions and their counterparts in these other jurisdictions.
Our analysis showed that per student expenditures for university students in Alberta were not quite $4,000 more than in Ontario and Quebec but actually $2,700 less than British Columbia, figures much at odds with those cited in the MacKinnon report. Why this difference?
Because MacKinnon lumps all institutions together and averages the expenditures system-wide.
This is misleading. The big difference is found regarding expenditures per student at Alberta’s colleges and polytechnics which, relative to the three comparators, are a whopping $9,000 to $15,000 higher than in the other three provinces.
These differences are likely smaller today, given the Kenney government’s draconian cuts since 2019.
The key point is that our data is more recent – and likely more accurate – than those in the MacKinnon report which continue to be used to justify government policy.
Alberta’s colleges are some of the province’s most expensive institutions per student. We expect research-intensive universities – those with expensive and specialized programs such as engineering and veterinary medicine – to be expensive, but small colleges with enrollments of less than 2,000 students and with multiple campuses often rival the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary in expenditures per student.
Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Many of these institutions were either established or expanded since the 1960s with the purpose of servicing remote locations and with other economic and social development goals in mind. This is far from a bad policy, but one that is costly and needs to be considered when making budget decisions about the post-secondary system.
Our report makes several criticisms of Alberta 2030. One major one, however, is that the government misuses data – perhaps intentionally – in its attack on Alberta’s post-secondary education system. Good data makes for good policy. The government is using out-dated and misleading data for an assault on post-secondary education disguised as fiscal prudence. Why? We will have more to say about this in future op-eds.
Trevor W. Harrison is Professor of Sociology and Richard E. Mueller is Professor of Economics, both at the University of Lethbridge.

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Southern Albertan

Again, smart countries/jurisdictions do not, do cutbacks on education.
They know, that all areas, blue collar and white collar means, leading the world in all areas, which is good for their economies. There will be much to ‘fix’ when the Kenney UCP get voted out.

Last edited 2 years ago by Southern Albertan

I would respectfully disagree with the good professor, on the subjject of cuts to higher education in the province. Having a family member in an authorative position in the U of C, with whom I had an extensive chat on the subject, I was informed that if the cuts were intelligently handled there was a reasonable path forward, even to the extent of introducing innovative programs . Obviously everyone prefers not to face cuts, but, in some cases those in the hallowed halls of academia fail to innovate and adapt as the private sector is forced to do every single day.
It should also be kept in mind that the province was facing with a dire fiscal situation last year and responded accordingly.

Fedup Conservative

Kenney took Alberta from a $71 billion debt to a $115.8 billion one in only 1 1/2 years. There has never been another premier dumb enough to do that, not even Klein. It certainly proves why 78% of Albertans want him kicked out and Notley reinstated doesn’t it?
” Kenney’s Unpopularity Hits New Low as Kenney Effect Worsens”

Elohssa Gib

The statement that the cuts at the UofC have been “intelligently handled” is based on the views of one person and obviously cannot be generalized. But more importantly, the letter addresses the basis or rationale for the cuts, not how they have been implemented.

Fedup Conservative

What was wrong with Peter Lougheed collecting proper royalties and taxes and running this province properly instead of slashing $9.4 billion off corporate taxes to benefit his rich friends and then making doctors, nurses , teachers and students pay for this revenue cutting stupidity , like Kenney is doing.
Those of us who have relatives in other provinces haven’t seen any of them doing it. You don’t need to be a genius to understand what these phony conservatives , Reformers, are doing to us. Of course they are trying to buy votes with our tax money.


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