Editorial Pages – Talking Bill 43 with the Learning Minister

Editorial Pages – Talking Bill 43 with the Learning Minister


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“Bill 43 sends a powerful message about Campus Alberta,” says Minister Oberg

Monday I awoke a little too late, prepared to begin hashing together another edition of this magazine. I had a committee meeting at 6:30, but the rest of my day was clear sailing. It was going to be a treat, compared to the day before, when I endured a marathon twelve hour session finishing up my next-to-final assignment for PSYC 343 (great course, but if you plan to take it, make sure you set aside plenty of time!).

Nothing ever goes as you planned it, though. At 10:30 I received a call from the office informing me that the office of the Alberta learning minister had just called to invite me to a telephone press scrum with the minister at 12:30. So much for preparation time!

I’m not going to complain, though. This is the first time the minister’s office has directly invited The Voice to a press session such as this, and having the opportunity to question the minister on educational issues in the presence of other members of the Alberta university press was a unique and much-appreciated opportunity. So, I did some quick research, called in, and hastily composed some questions while waiting on the phone line for the question period to begin.

I had anticipated that many journalists would be ahead of the curve, asking questions about the brand new amendments to the proposed education Bill 43 in response to dialogues between the minister’s office and the Alberta students’ associations. Instead, many of the questions seemed to focus on the most basic aspects of the bill, which had been made public many months before. Inquiries centered around such issues as “why was Bill 43 drafted in the first place, ” “is there really still a cap on tuition fees, if institutions have the ability to raise fees beyond the cap,” and “why does the new bill grant the government the ability to investigate the financial practices of student’s organizations.” Oberg answered all of these questions succinctly, showing that he’s had plenty of practice honing his replies to these basic queries.

They were are all important questions, but ones which have already been widely discussed. The more recent amendments to the proposed bill, however, were hardly touched upon. The experience made me realize that AUSU’s close relationship with CAUS (the Council of Alberta University Students) has probably made our students more aware of the implications of Bill 43, and perhaps we began delving in to the bill at an earlier stage than other schools. AUSU VP External Shirley Barg is also chair of the CAUS organization, and the primary focus of CAUS for many months has been the proposed new education bill.

Supporting my perception that some schools are only beginning to delve into the ramifications of this bill, was a question to Minister Oberg asking if he was surprised by the controversy around the bill. His response was that he was surprised more by the length of time it took for student’s organizations to begin bringing forth concerns about the bill.

So, many of the questions Minister Oberg answered weren’t new, but they are worth repeating as many students are only beginning to become aware of the new bill and how it might affect their educations.

To begin, Minister Oberg confirmed that once an institution reaches the 30% cap for income from tuition, the institution can then apply to increase tuition by 2% plus CPI. He also stated that this provision was put in place to assist the institutions within Alberta that are already operating at the level of the cap due to a decrease in operating expenditures (AU is presumably among these). The Minister said that he’s concerned that without the provision to increase tuition beyond the cap, some universities might have to increase their expenditures in order to increase the amount of money they can collect from tuition, and that this would be “counter-productive spending of tax payer’s dollars.”

When asked why Alberta drafted the new bill, Minister Oberg replied that “one of the reasons why was so that colleges and technical schools would have the ability to give degrees.” He also stated that combining all of the existing education bills into one piece of legislation sends the message that all colleges and universities in the province are working together and are “all equally as important as one another.” This sends a very “powerful message about Campus Alberta,” said the Minister.

It has recently been clarified that the limits on how much tuition can be raised each year will also apply to AU’s course materials fees in such a way that AU will not be able to raise the materials fee by a percentage higher than that by which tuition is raised. This addresses a major concern of AU students, which has been that if AU cannot get enough money by raising tuition, the course materials fee could be raised inordinately to offset this. This is not a baseless concern. In fact, this past year tuition was increased by 7.3%, but the course materials fee rose by 14%. However, what was not clear is how the current AU differential fee for out of province students would be affected by this legislation. I asked Dr. Oberg if the differential fee would be regulated within the bill.

“There is no cap on the out of province differential fee, that’s purely up to them [AU]. This legislation only applies to Alberta students,” replied the Minister.

The next question was a source of some amusement. You see, Minister Oberg has been chided many times for neglecting to remember AU when he’s speaking about Alberta’s post secondary schools. Last year he referred to the “three” universities in Alberta, when AU, of course, makes four. The Minister seems to have taken these criticisms seriously.

When a journalist asked about how the new bill would affect the value of degrees from different universities in Alberta, she referred to students who graduate from schools like Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan College, Athabasca or “any of the other smaller schools:”

“Be careful,” the Minister interjected, “Athabasca is almost bigger than the U of A.”

As heartening as this might be, however, Dr. Oberg still continually refers to AU as the “University of Athabasca.” I’m tempted to start referring to the other Alberta Universities as “Calgary University,” “Alberta University,” and “Lethbridge University” when speaking to the Minister, to see if he corrects me. Which is not to imply that I chat with him often…

I had an opportunity during the session to ask if tuition fees continue to rise, is Alberta prepared to raise the maximum student loans amount to reflect the real cost of tuition. Dr. Oberg responded that the loans amount does typically rise to match tuition increases and the amount allowed for living costs rises each year by the rate of inflation.

Unfortunately, this did not address my question. It is true that each year the amount which a student can apply for per semester does increase, however, the maximum lifetime loans limit does not increase. Therefore, as the yearly limits increase, the effective duration of student loans decreases, and what was once enough money to fund four years of tuition and living allowance now covers less than three years. There are no indications at this time that the lifetime limit will begin to raise on a scale reflective of the actual cost of completing a four year degree.

Regarding the portion of Bill 43 that allows the government to investigate a students’ association in case of financial irregularities, Dr. Oberg revealed that this provision was in response to “two cases at colleges in Alberta over the last fifteen years where students’ associations have absconded with the money” and he said that the new provisions were put in as failsafe mechanisms at the request of those schools.

I asked Dr. Oberg how this provision was any different from the government becoming a watchdog for any type of union, including labour unions. The Minister replied that other branches of government monitor labour unions, which must adhere to “strict monetary rules.” I asked if the provision in bill 43 is similar to the one that labour unions are bound by, to which Dr. Oberg replied: “No, it isn’t. This is purely that if there are any financial irregularities that become apparent then we can take a look at it, is quite simply what it is. This is probably the least invasive of any process that is involved, for example, in government we go through the Auditor General and all sorts of different counter-measures. In students’ associations those counter-measures aren’t necessarily there.”

I also wanted to know “what percentage of the universities’ operating costs Alberta is prepared to contribute, and : if student tuition does rise above that 30% cap, is Alberta prepared to match that sort of contribution with a similar government contribution to the schools?”

“The government contribution has been going up,” replied the Minister. Last year there was between eight and nine percent put into post-secondary institutions around the province, so it has actually kept pace and indeed has probably gone up more so than students’ contributions.”

I asked again what percentage of the universities’ total operating expenditures the government’s contribution represents, however, Dr. Oberg did not supply a figure for this contribution and explained instead that the students’ contribution is unlikely to actually reach 30%.

The reality is to the contrary. I found these figures from AU’s annual reports:

For 2001 & 2002:
Government contribution: 36.2% 2001 & 36.0% for 2002
Undergraduate contribution: 31.5% for 2001 & 32.3% for 2002
Graduate contribution: 16.6% for 2001 & 17.2% for 2002

Total student contribution: 47.5% for 2001 & 49.5% for 2002.

For 2003:
“Very significantly, 2002-2003 was the first year that undergraduate student fees exceeded Province of Alberta grants” (p. 56)
Province of Alberta Grants totalled 20,758 million. (33.6% of revenue)
Undergraduate tuition totalled 20,897 million. (33.8% of revenue) (p.62.)

These figures may clarify why the government is not prepared to discuss government contributions to the universities in terms of the percentage of operating expenditures.

Another issue touched up is Alberta’s commitment to the promotion of distance learning. In response to a question about the accreditation process outlined in bill 43, Minister Oberg commented that he is concerned that the rural colleges in Alberta are unable to grant degrees, and therefore students who want degrees are forced to travel to “Calgary, Edmonton or Lethbridge” in order to get a degree.

“I’m curious about something you said a few minutes ago,” I later asked. “You had mentioned that you have concerns that many of the rural institutions in Alberta cannot grant degrees, and that students from these areas generally have to go to Calgary, Edmonton or Lethbridge to study. Obviously this completely neglects the fact that Athabasca University grants masters and bachelors degrees and that people anywhere in Alberta can attend. It seems to go along with a lot of the complaints of distance education students, that Alberta really doesn’t recognize Athabasca University.”

“I disagree completely,” replied the Minister. “Athabasca University is something that is an incredibly important part: We are recognized world wide for our distance learning, and I talk often about it. I think you know as well that there are a lot of people that do not necessarily want distance learning, that they would sooner have the learning in the classroom in the typical university environment. So absolutely you can receive a degree by University of Athabasca, but there is a percentage of people that would much sooner have the teacher in the classroom. The idea behind University of Athabasca is to provide an alternative to the initial learning that is out there right now:”

Minister Oberg closed by responding to a question about why there are so many “misconceptions” about Bill 43. He commented that there has been a great deal of misinformation about the bill, even after changes were made at the request of students’ organizations, and that there has been a misconception that the initial draft of the bill was intended to be passed as is. On the contrary, the minister explained, the plan from the beginning was to put the initial draft out in order to provide a starting point for discussions between the ministry and students’ organizations.

He stated that it is the responsibility of the students’ organizations “provide the honest responses to their constituents, which are the students.” He noted that in Alberta his office has had an excellent relationship with students’ associations, which is something he would like to see continue.

It is clear that students’ organizations and the Learning Ministry have a very different view of many aspects of Bill 43, and that these differences are unlikely to be entirely resolved. However, I have also noticed a propensity from some students’ groups to scoff at many of the concessions and comments of the Minister, which may be a valid response, but which make it difficult to determine if these responses are considered ones, or if there is a knee-jerk reaction occurring. There is still much more to be learned about the larger implications of the proposed education bill and how it will affect students.

Much of the concern is not based on what the bill will directly cause to happen, but the loopholes that are left which may allow universities to take unfair advantage of students who are in many ways consumers with very little power, due to a lack of competition in the education market. When every school is full, competition is not a relevant market factor.

Tamra Ross Low – Editor in Chief