Alberta Provincial Election 2015 – Why AU Students Should Care

Maybe you live in Barrhead, Alberta, and you just aren’t interested in politics. Or maybe you live in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and You’re looking at implications of the Liberal’s new budget on your own province. But even if you aren’t normally interested in Alberta politics, if You’re an Athabasca University student, it affects you.

Post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility. The government supports universities and colleges financially, and government choices have a direct impact on the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education. That means that no matter where you live, as an AU student, your pocketbook and learning experience could be affected by what happens in Alberta’s provincial elections.

The new government could, for example, decide to give AU more, or less, funding, which would affect AU’s ability to maintain our electronic infrastructure and retain the academics and front-line workers who are crucial to student success. In 2013, the Government of Alberta cut funding to AU and other post-secondary intuitions by almost 8%, forcing AU to eliminate 113 staff positions. The recently released 2015 budget included a further 4% cut to post-secondary over the next two years.

AU is particularly vulnerable to changes in funding. The Alberta government’s funding formula is not transparent, but is based primarily on the number of Alberta students each institution serves. As Athabasca University has significantly more out-of-province students than Alberta students (24,442 to 15,543 in 2013-14), government funding does not support most AU students, contributing to a gross, chronic underfunding of the university.

The government also has the power change the rules around what AU is allowed to charge students in tuition. Right now, government regulation ties tuition for most programs to CPI ? that is, tuition can’t be increased by more than inflation. After the release of the provincial budget, however, Don Scott, the Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, has said that “every option” is on the table, which means that tuition regulation may not be upheld, and the cost per course could suddenly jump.

So the composition of the new government will play a large role in determining AU’s funding and, thereby, its future. Where do Alberta’s four main political parties stand on funding universities?

The Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta has held office in Alberta for the last forty-three consecutive years. The PC Platform pledges to “increase access and reduce financial barriers to post-secondary education in Alberta,” but does not offer any details on how this could be brought about. Premier Jim Prentice has not offered any explanation how the cuts recently levied on post-secondary institutions by Progressive Conservative governments could aid in reaching his goals of increased access.

The Wildrose Party is the Progressive Conservatives? even-more-conservative competition. The Wildrose has a policy toting “world class” post-secondary, and notes that “labour shortages should be addressed through innovative programs that match graduates with jobs through incentives.” Research would be funded by “encouraging private sector partnerships.” So if You’re a business major or trades student, and your learning has direct employment outcomes, this plan might work for you, but if You’re studying the humanities, or conducting bleeding edge research without obvious commercial applications, look out!

Alberta’s Liberal Party pledges to “reduce tuition fees” and “ensure program choice,” and while these goals seem slightly more realistic than the free tuition that the party promised prior to the last election, the Liberal promises are vague and the platform offers no hints on how these aims could be achieved.

The New Democrats have, by far, the most detailed post-secondary education platform, promising stable funding for universities and to “reverse the reckless Prentice cuts.” NDP promises to restore the Summer Temporary Employment Program are aimed at a traditional, young post-secondary student demographic, and are unlikely to have much impact on AU students. Rachel Notley’s “real tuition freeze for post-secondary students,” however, could well meet the aim of making advanced education “increasingly accessible and affordable.”

Not sure which party is the best fit for you? Vote Compass will ask you about your values, and let you know how they align with Alberta’s political parties. And if You’re still undecided, Change Alberta can help you vote strategically by recommending the progressive candidate most likely to win in your constituency (incidentally, It’s also run by AU Professor Emeritus, Alvin Finkel).

So what can you do to ensure that this provincial election has a positive outcome for AU? If You’re out of province but have any friends or family in Alberta, contact them to make sure that they know how important your education is to you, and how their vote will affect it. And if you are an Alberta resident, you can volunteer for or donate to a candidate or party that you believe in, but more than that, you can VOTE! Because voting is how we help choose the best government possible?and the best, most secure future for AU.

Bethany Tynes completed her MA in Integrated Studies through AU, and is a Canadian politics junkie.

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