From My Perspective – Alberta’s Universities Collaborate

Alberta’s four universities have embarked on an unusual collaborative venture, brought about by our province’s new debt-free status. Debt-free, you say?

Yes – for those who are non-Albertans, our premier (none other than Ralph Klein), has announced that, due to aggressive budget cuts over the past few years and higher than anticipated oil revenues, Alberta has paid off all debts. With the debt paid, we are apparently “rolling in money” and the government is asking Albertans where they would like our new revenues, this “unexpected” windfall, to be spent.

A survey has been mailed to each home in an attempt to gather feedback. Although the survey is ostensibly to allow Albertans to make choices regarding Alberta’s future, like many surveys, it blatantly manipulates responses. We are given nine items that we can rate on a priority scale. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as “reduce taxes”, “protect Alberta’s environment,” or “provide a quality, affordable Alberta health care system” (although one wonders if this refers to a unique Alberta-style privatization plan?). Others are completely ambiguous, for example, “respond to growth in cities” (huh?) or “preserve rural communities” (perhaps something like the recent Alberta government BSE bailout that was supposed to go to rural cattle producers and instead gave millions to two U.S. meat packing plants?). Still others are quite open to interpretation, such as, “provide an outstanding education system” or, “provide support to Albertans who need help” (are we talking single Albertans who receive a maximum of $400 a month on welfare, or are we referring to other kinds of help, such as support for the arts?). The survey also includes choices to “invest in Alberta’s infrastructure” and “build a more diverse, innovative economy.”

The survey section itself only takes up a single page of the eight-page foldout. The rest of the brochure goes on to detail several key areas that Albertans should be thinking about, making it very clear just how our government would like us to vote on the survey.

First up is the topic of infrastructure, followed by a stronger economy. Preserving Alberta’s environment also gets a paragraph, as does “ensuring that all Albertans benefit from our province’s prosperity” including low income, people with disabilities, seniors, and Aboriginals. The vote persuasion section concludes with paragraphs on preserving Alberta’s tax advantage and saving for the future, followed by a little chart showing “where your money goes” with expenditures from 1994-95 compared to 2004-05.

Amazingly, according to the chart, health care expenditures have gone from 3.9 billion to 9.1 billion; education from 3.8 to 6.4, and social services from 1.5 to 2.4. “Other” expenditures have only risen to 5.1 from 4.3. The implication is obvious. Alberta is apparently already spending plenty on health care and education.

Of course, those of us who remain informed know that this is nonsense. We know, for example, that Alberta’s tuition fees continue to rise, even while fees in virtually every other province stay put. We know that Alberta has experienced a jump of 6.5 percent tuition this past year, one of the highest across Canada. We know that even Newfoundland, the supposedly “have-not” province, has managed to freeze tuition fees. We know that tuition in Alberta has increased 273 percent since 1990, when according to Statistics Canada, tuition was $1286 a year. So when the Alberta government attempts to snow us by telling us that government spending on education has increased from 3.8 to 6.5 (%?), we know better.

Alberta’s four universities also know better, and admirably, they have banded together in an effort to persuade the government to finally start investing in post-secondary education. I first became aware of this last week when I heard a radio advertisement discussing the importance of investing in the future of Alberta’s young people, urging the government to spend money on post-secondary education now that we are debt-free. I was surprised to hear, at the end of the commercial, the words, “a message from the Universities of Lethbridge, Athabasca, Calgary and Alberta in support of post-secondary education.”

My surprise was not just at the unusual collaboration, but at the reference to “Alberta’s youth,” as if they were the only ones who would benefit from post secondary education. Since a good number of Athabasca University students are mature adults, I would have expected a broader statement that encompassed more than just Alberta’s young people. Indeed, even campus-based universities are increasingly comprised of older students who are going back to university to enhance their ability to compete in today’s economy.

Today, however, the Edmonton Journal ran another advertisement from the four universities. The ad is almost full page, and is set out in a survey format, listing desirable investments for a debt-free Alberta as including; “health care, roads & buildings, technology, arts & culture, economic development, environment, reducing poverty, and education” with check marks in boxes beside them. Underneath the boxes, the ad states boldly, “higher education makes all of the above possible.” So true.

I was pleased to see our universities take this direction, working together to focus our government on the fact that post secondary education should come first – since everything else is a by-product of education. It has long been recognized by researchers that an educated population is one where poverty does not exist; where the health care system is not strained to its limit. An educated population does not destroy the environment, and economic development and technological advancements abound in educated communities. An educated populace has time to devote to arts and culture, because they are not worn down by the daily grind of eking out an existence. In short – educate people, and all the other problems become manageable.

I remain amazed that our premier, Ralph Klein, in spite of being a student himself, in spite of knowing the importance of post secondary education, in spite of understanding the struggles of going back to school later in life – still does not appear to be placing university education as a priority.

I would strongly encourage Alberta students to back your university in this initiative. Return your survey to the government (or go fill one out online), and let them know that you are in agreement that an investment in higher education is an investment in “everything that makes a good life possible.” The government has said they will listen to what Albertans want – let’s take advantage of the opportunity.

REFERENCES

Edmonton Journal, September 5, 2004, p.A10, advertisement “Where should a debt-free Alberta invest?”

Now is the time to invest in Higher Education: Alberta universities press for increased access. http://www.athabascau.ca/frontpage/articles/invest_31Aug04.htm

Government of Alberta website & survey: http://www.gov.ab.ca/home/index.cfm

Alberta’s tuition fees going up; others stay put. Larry Johnsrude, Edmonton Journal, September 3, 2004.

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