Edmonton’s Economic Heart is Regaining its Voice | By Emerson Csorba

Several months ago, on June 22, 2013 a handful of University of Alberta students and alumni came together to organize “Stand Up for Edmonton,” a grassroots and community-driven event focused on widening Edmonton’s discussion about post-secondary education. The event, which required about one month of planning, and benefited tremendously from the support of both Edmonton Public Libraries and the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts, went splendidly. Overall, approximately 110 Edmontonians attended the event on what proved to be a beautiful Saturday morning following a week of rainy weather. The organizers emerged on June 22 afternoon with smiles on their faces.

The event was successful, thanks in no small part to the charisma of our MC and distinguished UAlberta alumnus, Randy Boissonnault. A sharp and hilarious speech about the liberal arts by the EEDC’s President Brad Ferguson, an economic overview of the University of Alberta by Tony Briggs and Jennifer Jennings, and panels featuring Edmontonians such as Don Iveson and Shawna Pandya provided interesting insights that conferences attendees have chewed on for several months.

Certainly, the event itself was important. Prior to Stand Up for Edmonton, there was little to no Edmonton-wide discussion about the roles the University of Alberta plays across Edmonton. This was disheartening, but not really surprising. Too many Edmontonians are complacent about their city, and their recognition (or lack thereof) of post-secondaries’ roles in creating a better Edmotnon is no exception.

For instance, in my experiences as the U of A Students’ Union’s VP Academic in 2011-2012, I became disenchanted with many university activists’ insularity: those that cared about the university disseminated their criticisms within small pockets of the institution. In 2011, for instance, former Encana Corporation CEO Gwyn Morgan spoke harshly about the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Education. People were outraged. Yet very few academics took to national or even local papers to voice their concerns with his speech. In April 2013, I was asked to speak at the Political Science Undergraduate Associaiton’s year-end gala, and took ten minutes to underscore the importance of having students and staff initiate a city-wide discussion about higher education during the summer. Again, there was only a small response. But once again, no surprise here. We’ve become too accustomed to a culture of mediocrity, particularly around education.

Stand Up for Edmonton helped move the ball forward, thanks in part to the welcome contributions of journalists like Omar Mouallem of Metro and Linda Hoang of the Edmonton Sun. But the July 22 conference needed to be more than just a one-off event. This is where the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation’s many education visionaries stepped in.

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If you’ve yet to hear about the EEDC, you’re missing out. Whether it’s organizing Edmonton’s first-ever E-Town Festival (taking place on September 12 and 13, 2013) or hosting a city-wide forum on the downtown core, the EEDC has instilled a renewed vigour in Edmonton, particularly across the youth population.

On June 28, the EEDC held a morning event that in time, will be seen as a turning point in Edmonton’s post-secondary learning system. Entitled “ONEdmonton,” this event assembled over 70 business leaders across town, who for several hours discussed “The Impact of Post Secondary Budget Cuts on the Edmonton Economy.” It was a fantastic morning, and I felt honoured to be one of the youngest individuals in attendance. Mayor Mandel made an inspired speech about the value of post-secondary education in Edmonton, following up on a similar speech made several days earlier.

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On July 31, Ferguson and his team compiled the insights from ONEdmonton, and shared them through this document. The paper is one that all passionate Edmontonians need to read. It is much more than a typical consultant-speak report; included within are clear deliverables, trenchant commentary and an understanding that post-secondary education extends far beyond economic development (though economic prosperity is certainly a key ingredient). Simply put, this is the most pointed example of constructive criticism about post-secondary education to come from outside the post-secondary system in many years. Below are some of my most important takeaways from the paper:

Universities are known for research and teaching, but they also provide outreach.

The University of Alberta alone drives the province’s economy by over $12 billion on an annual basis. Incredible. However, too many Edmontonians take for granted the social contributions made by their universities. Whether it’s multicultural festivals, space for community-led workshops or simply the types of people that become alumni, universities are social and cultural hubs. When one claws back university budgets and forces faculties to cut programs in the classics, languages and cultural studies, the long-term effects are devastating. This is particularly true in Edmonton, where we’re riding fantastic momentum as a rising Canadian cultural capital.

In other words, taking money away from out top post-secondary institutions makes for a dull, uninspiring and retrograde Alberta. That’s certainly not the province I want to live in, nor is it the type of environment for a growing city like Edmonton.

All parties involved in this discussion – including students – need to step up their game and display more responsibility.

Though I’ve voiced this in past discussions, too many Edmontonians are complacent. This is especially true of students. Summer or no summer, the last four months were some of the most critical months in the University of Alberta’s history. Though institutions like the U of A, NAIT and Grant MacEwan are led by strong student associations with full-time staff, it is not enough to assume that these small groups of students can improve Edmonton post-secondary education on their own.  Thankfully, some students have stepped up, though what we’ve seen thus far leaves much to be desired.

Stable Funding

The University of Alberta, NAIT, Grant MacEwan and other institutions should by no means feel entitled to consistent funding. They need to earn it, just as other institutions do. The thing is: they do earn it. A quick read through Jennifer Jennings and Tony Briggs report on the U of A’s annual economic production attests to this, and this is a peer-reviewed and credible paper. In another early-summer 2013 project led by university students (a similar group to that of Stand Up for Edmonton), we identified 300 outstanding alumni that have graduated from Alberta’s post-secondary education system, and this represents only a sliver of many awe-inspiring alumni we encountered. Post-secondary institutions need predictable funding, rather than sudden budget cuts that leave institutions gasping for air.

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 In his weekly EEDC blog, Brad Ferguson writes that “the current state of distrust and disrepair continues to threaten the long-term strength of our local economy – something I believe is completely preventable and absolutely unacceptable.” This is bang-on. Edmonton, one of the world’s cities to look out for, is excellent in large part because of its post-secondary institutions. The same is true in Germany, where universities seem to be on every street corner, woven into city’s social fabric.

As we experience large annual increases in GDP, waves of immigrants and improvements to our technology/start-up sector, this is exactly when post-secondary education should be a provincial strategic focus.

Though we’ve taken several steps backward over the last month, our potential for improvement is incredible. Mayor Mandel’s State of the City Address was a starting point. Stand Up for Edmonton was logical next step. We must also thank the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and its CEO, James Cumming. But most of all, the EEDC deserves credit. It is standing up for Edmonton. because post-secondary is truly the Economic Heart of Edmonton.

CC photograph courtesy of kevinmklerks on Flickr.

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  • Anon

    I didn’t know hearts had mouths.