Mandate U | By Graeme Archibald

On Friday, Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education Thomas Lukaszuk sent draft “letters of expectation” to Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions, including the University of Alberta.  These letters – which coincided with the deep cuts to advanced education in the March 7 provincial budget – set out the government’s demands for the institutions, ranging from research priorities and program offerings. According to Minister Lukaszuk, the overhaul for Alberta’s colleges and universities are “non-negotiable”, while at the same time welcoming input.

The University of Alberta released its copy of the letter through its official blog Colloquy yesterday, giving students and staff the first look at the government’s intentions for the province’s flagship institution. The letter comes in at only five pages and is limited on details, but it nonetheless provides some insight into the Alberta government’s vision:

“Actively engage in and support the Campus Alberta brand”

Campus Alberta is the integrated plan for post-secondary education, setting shared goals and facilitating easier transfers across post-secondary institutions. This more centralized approach should reduce administrative costs and shift institutional focus strongly on the learner. While improvements to the credit transfer system amongst our post-secondary institutions is to be welcomed, the government’s mandate to the University to increase support for the brand (as well as use its logo on all correspondence) reminds this writer of the troubled amalgamation of regional health authorities into the Alberta Health Services in 2008. It is indicative of the government’s staunch support for a centralized approach to higher education, and this will have an impact on the independence of our institutions from each other moving forward. Are we headed towards a University of California-style system in which our universities and colleges are turned into campuses of a single, unified institution? Perhaps, and the implications of such a change are very unclear at this point.

“Review the range of programs offered with the aim to ensure that programs offered: Build on the strengths of your institution and advance the Campus Alberta brand, are in demand by employers and students, and are designed to develop the full potential of learners for our economy and society”

There was little doubt that the budget cuts would hurt many programs offered by Alberta’s universities and colleges. The mandate letter reflects the government’s stated desire to take a greater role in program offerings. Again, the Campus Alberta brand is touted highly, which raises more questions than answers about each institution’s individual identity and independence in the higher education system. The issue of demands from employers is an interesting one to consider – undoubtedly, there has been a growing disconnect between university education and post-graduation employment, leaving youth mired in a pit of debt and disappointment. In Canada, the youth unemployment rate remains around 15%, at a cost of $23 billion to our economy. The greater problem, however, is youth underemployment, which at latest estimates has 25% of graduates working in positions that do not require a university degree. It is good to see the government address this growing issue; however, the top-down approach of vaguely tying programs to economic demand leaves much room for disaster. Having a bureaucrat decide what the economic “demands” are for graduates in a certain field, and thus adjusting programs to fit those niches, is a troubling precedent that weakens a student’s ability to pursue what they want and assumes that the government has an omnipotent knowledge of employers’ desires.  Addressing the issues of youth underemployment is a good thing, but the government’s approach is greatly concerning.

“Enhance alignment of Campus Alberta research priorities and capacity with the key outcomes and themes articulated in the Alberta Research and Innovation Plan”

This section is perhaps the most concerning of the mandate letter. Universities, for their entire existence, have been bastions of independent and curiosity-driven research. Brilliant people pursuing their own curiosities, not by a bureaucracy that seeks research that meets economic goals, make the next big discovery. Forcing researchers to adhere to outcomes developed by the provincial government will stifle innovation in Alberta, and greatly diminish our international reputation as a research institution. Research for economic development is something that should be left to the private sector, with universities serving in their historic role as centres of basic, fundamental research in the public good.

Post-secondary education in Alberta is in for many changes – the impacts of which remain very uncertain. The Government of Alberta is asserting an unprecedented (in Alberta, at least) influence over the direction of our colleges and universities, and the reason for that targeting is unclear. Post-secondary education received the largest cut out of any government department, and outside of students and staff there has been little public outcry.

Perhaps the government is willing to tackle post-secondary education because it is politically easy in a province where the post-secondary participation rate of between 17% and 20%, the lowest in Canada. There is a culture of passivity to higher education amongst the Albertan public, which borders on outright hostility at times – for example, this comment on the above linked Calgary Herald article:

           “Turning these left wing think-tanks that use taxpayers money like a teenager who steals daddy’s credit card into efficient institutions that properly prepare people to be contributing members of society is always a good idea.”

It will be a tough road ahead for Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. We face a government bent on centralized change and an unsympathetic public. The mandate letters bring little hope of a positive outcome in their current form, and we can hope that Minister Lukaszuk will hold true to his word and accept input from our institutions. We all know the value of post-secondary education – now is the time to show it to our government and our neighbours.

Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science Honors student and soon to be graduate of the University of Alberta.

Creative Commons photograph courtesy of mastermaq on Flickr.

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