Government meddling tarnishing reputation of universities in Alberta

2 recent reports outline the extent of the decline

Government meddling tarnishing reputation of universities in Alberta FREE to subscribers

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EDMONTON, AB, Mar 13, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Two reports, both published in the last few days, should give the Alberta government cause for pause as they think about reducing funding for post-secondary education in the province.

The first is the annual rankings of Universities around the world. Canada has just three in the top 100 – University of Toronto (16), McGill (35) and UBC (37). For engineering, we can add Waterloo (68). No Alberta institution made the grade. What is interesting is that the middle of this list is now increasingly featuring Asian and Latin American institutions. Some time ago, the University of Alberta indicated its intention to be on this list. It still isn’t.

Universities in Alberta facing uncertain future

The second report is from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, which looked at the performance of Canadian institution in terms of key outcomes such as job qualifications and earnings; access to education based on levels of student aid and debt; research funding and reputation. Again, Alberta did not appear to be the shining star of Canada. In fact, we had the second worst outcome overall in Canada, slightly ahead of Saskatchewan. The report indicates we are a high cost, low outcome performer.

Universities in Alberta
Universities in Alberta, especially Athabasca University, are in serious trouble

No doubt the Alberta government will seize on this point – “high cost, low outcome” – to blame those who lead and manage our universities. In some cases, this may well be correct. But the reality is that the government keeps changing the rules of the game. Making Mount Royal and McEwan universities, expanding private universities, permitting degree granting for colleges, capping tuition, developing clear and focused research strategies which may be appropriate but don’t match the skills and capacities of our institutions, changing the basis of funding have all led to Presidents and their leadership teams working in an atmosphere of constant uncertainty. The high point came when a planned increase in funding was quickly followed by a budget reduction, all within 2.5 months during the brief tenure of one Minister.

Alberta needs a more focused strategy for its post-secondary system, one that goes beyond the crude rhetoric of “skills” and “employability” (not that these are unimportant). Just what do we want our universities and colleges to contribute and what is a plan for enabling this to occur with a sense of stability and focus so that leaders can lead and managers can manage?

In any case, something needs to happen. Alberta’s major universities are running deficits and one – Athabasca University – is in deep and serious trouble. A bold decision has to be made – merge it with McEwan, close it (it’s a jewel in Canada’s crown – our only open university), privatize it or create some kind of public/private partnership.

Making this decision will tell us a lot about the way the Prentice government sees universities.

When Janet Tully and I wrote our book Rethinking Post-Secondary Education, we explored the changes which need to occur because the world of higher education is fast changing. We outlined a great many options and strategies which need to be considered, but the key is public commitment to public education.

Universities in Alberta in reaction mode

As funding per capita for higher education students declines in real terms, it gets more difficult to be strategic, with Presidents and their teams in “reaction” and “problem solving” mode more often than in planning and development mode. I know, I have been at the table.

What they need now is long term, stable funding decisions and a government that gets out of the way so that they can do the institution building and transformations they see as appropriate to their strategic intent.

Stephen Murgatroyd is a consultant in innovative business and education practices with a PHd in psychology.

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