Editorial—AB vs AU

The Alberta government released its penultimate budget yesterday.  This is the last budget that the NDP will be able to implement before having to go through an election so is the budget, the general thinking goes, that should be positioning the Alberta government to make a lot of promises in their next budget.  (Of course, the general thinking is often wrong, as Stephen Harper’s own Master’s Thesis at the University of Calgary found little evidence to support the theory that election cycles significantly affect government spending.)

For Athabasca University students, the important numbers in the budget are those that surround post-secondary education.  With this budget, the NDP government has confirmed a fourth year of tuition freezes (with funding to compensate universities and colleges for not being able to raise these fees) plus an additional 2% in base operating funding.  Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find that, once again, post-secondary is getting a bit of a short shrift.

Looking on page 23 of the latest budget, you can find the chart where you can see that funding for student aid, for instance, will be dropping from 245 million to 228 million.  A budgeted loss of some 17 million.  To be completely fair, this is still somewhat higher than the forecasted spending of 2017, which is expected to finish at around 223 million.  However, this becomes more concerning when you read that even with this drop in budgeted spending, the NDP has noted that they will be introducing new scholarships to encourage training in technology and other developing sectors.  If that’s going up and the budgeted spending is going down, something that they’re doing now is going away.  Exactly what, they don’t tell us.

The government is also promising some six million dollars “to begin investing in 3,000 new technology-related post-secondary program seats.”  The word “seats” is a flag to me. It signals that this funding is likely not going to be coming to Athabasca University.  Because if the government is looking for seats, it’s looking for this education to be available only to Albertans.  This is further borne out by their stated desire to “attract investment to the province and bolster programs that will help create good jobs for everyday Albertans and enhanced training to grow a high-tech workforce.”  This brings us to the crux of the matter.  When it comes to post-secondary education, the NDP government is little different than the PC governments that came before it. They do not view the post-secondary system as one for education, but rather as one for training.  Funding post-secondary is simply another way to provide public support to private enterprise—in this case, funding employee training that businesses themselves no longer pay for even while demanding employees have the corresponding skill-sets.

And because of this, AU will always be at a disadvantage. When education is simply viewed as training for private enterprise in the region, an institution which educates people regardless of their region is not as good a use of public funds as a university or college-made-university that has physical seats, thus requiring physical presence in the region.  The only ways to change this that I can see involve either changing the viewpoint of most Albertans, something I don’t see happening, or changing the area of expertise of AU from teaching to technically applicable research with an emphasis on patent ownership and economic spin-offs, not something that would tend to bode well for the undergraduate population.  Hopefully someone else can come up with a better, alternative solution. But until then, it’s AB vs AU once again.  Enjoy the read!

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