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Internal documents contradict Alberta government's initial explanation for Rutherford Scholarship delay

'They said that it was a technology problem and ... these emails suggest that it was about the budget'

Posted: January 07, 2020
Last Updated: January 08, 2020

Alberta NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman, left, and the UCP government's advanced education minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, are seen in these file photos. (Left: CBC News, right: Genevieve Tardif/CBC)

Each year, thousands of high school students in Alberta earn Rutherford Scholarships to help them pay for post-secondary tuition. So, many were shocked last summer when the application process didn't open on schedule on Aug. 1.

At the time, the provincial government said the delay was due to "a major technology upgrade" with the online application system. But internal documents, obtained by CBC News under a freedom-of-information request, tell a different story.

The documents show senior government officials discussing how the Rutherford Scholarships could have opened on Aug. 1 and that the delay was not actually due to technology upgrades. They also include a text-message conversation about whether there was direction from the premier's office or finance minister's office with respect to scholarships being opened before the UCP's October budget was released.

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The internal emails also include conversations about how news coverage of the delay and public outcry on social media prompted the government to make a hasty about-face and open the Rutherfords on Aug. 6, while it took until October for other scholarship applications to be made available.

The revelations have the Official Opposition accusing the government of misleading the public and trying to cover up the real reasons for the delay.

"They lied and they tried to blame others for their decision to delay the applications," said Alberta NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman.

But Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says it was actually decisions by the previous NDP government that would have led to the Rutherford applications being delayed until November if he hadn't stepped in during the summer and instructed that they be opened sooner.

The internal documents refer to a larger "transformation project" of the student aid system that ran in parallel to the technology upgrades, which had launched in February 2018, leading to complications and delays in 2019 due to both processes happening at once.

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"This was in part because of a decision by the former government to include the Rutherford Scholarship into this broader transformation initiative, when it didn't need to be," Nicolaides said.

$39M in scholarships 'should have been' available Aug. 1

Significant amounts of money were at stake, so many students and parents were anxious, at the time, about the delay.

More than 23,000 students applied for a Rutherford Scholarship in the latest year, according to the documents, and just over 19,000 qualified for a total of $39 million in funding. The award is automatic for students who achieve a certain grade average in high school, so the number of recipients can fluctuate from year to year.

Nicolaides acknowledged the technology upgrades were not the cause of the delay and said the Rutherford applications "could have been" and "should have been" available on Aug. 1.

Thousands of students who attend the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and other post-secondary institutions make use of Rutherford Scholarships to help pay their first year's tuition. (Left: David Bell/CBC, right: University of Alberta)

He said there was "miscommunication" within the department that he worked to sort out during the summer. The internal documents include several emails in which he asks various staff members to clarify what's happening with the scholarships.

Nicolaides also denied the delay in August had anything to do with concerns over the UCP budget, which was due out in October.

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The budget is mentioned, however, in those internal documents.

'It's part of the budget, we can't release it yet'

Among the documents is a text-message exchange between Nicolaides and his chief of staff, Jesse Robertson, from the morning of Aug. 6.

As government staff were scrambling to open the Rutherford applications and devise a communications plan about the delay, Nicolaides texted Robertson to ask, "who did you speak to in premier's office who said not to open scholarships?"

Robertson replied that it was actually Mitch Gray, the chief of staff in Treasury Board and Finance, with whom he had spoken.

"Because it's part of the budget, we can't release it yet," Robertson said in his reply.

A text-message conversation between Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and his chief of staff, Jesse Robertson, on Aug. 6, 2019, obtained under a freedom of information request. (Government of Alberta)

Asked about those messages, Nicolaides said he was just doing "due diligence" and it's "not correct at all" to interpret the exchange to mean there was budgetary pressure on the scholarships.

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"That didn't play any role in the delay," he said.

Hoffman didn't buy that.

"It sounds like they're considering the financial implications of following through on their commitments to high school students," the deputy NDP leader said. 

"It sounds like they were delaying it because they were considering cutting it."

'Business' vs. IT concerns

That's also how Lori Williams, a political scientist with Mount Royal University, reads the documents.

"It's absolutely clear, as the email threads continue, that it had nothing to do with technology, that it was a delay because they hadn't passed a budget yet," she said.

In addition to the text message exchange, numerous emails between government staff who work on the information technology (IT) side of Advanced Education and Service Alberta describe the delay as being due to a "business" decision, rather than a technological one.

Email conversations between various government staff who work in information technology about the Rutherford Scholarship delay being related to 'business' rather than technology. Relevant sections have been highlighted and email addresses redacted by CBC News. (Government of Alberta)

"The problem for the government is that they said that it was a technology problem and — whether you call it 'business' or 'budget' — they were saying that it was not about that," Williams said.

"These emails suggest that it was about the budget — about the business of government."

Communications, news and social media

The documents also show that Nicolaides had "provided direction to open up the Rutherford application" earlier than the fall, possibly as early as Aug 1.

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But an email to staff on Aug. 2 advised: "At this point, the direction is to keep the Rutherford application on hold until late fall as per the messaging on the [Service Alberta] Website."

Over the weekend of Aug. 3-4, concern began to grow among students and parents who noticed the applications were not yet open. Some expressed their worries on social media, leading to incorrect speculation that the Rutherfords had been cancelled altogether.

Early on Monday, Aug. 5, CBC published a story about the delay in applications. Later that day, emails started circulating among government officials, highlighting the news coverage and the public outcry on social media.

"We'll likely have to get Rutherford up tomorrow," Andy Weiler, an assistant deputy minister in Advanced Education, wrote to Maggie DesLauriers, executive director of Student Aid Alberta.

"CBC ran a story today and there was some action on twitter. That's what's driving this."

Another email to a group of staff said there was instruction "to go live with Rutherford" at 10 a.m. that day, if possible, but noted a communication plan also needed to be devised "before pressing the button."

That plan was circulated at 1:19 p.m., including "key messages" about the reasons for the delay and suggested answers to potential questions. Third on the list of questions was: "Are these changes related to budget deliberations?"

Most of the suggested answers to that question were redacted under a section of Alberta's freedom of information law that exempts advice to ministers from being released publicly.

A redacted section of the communications plan for the Rutherford Scholarship application delay. (Government of Alberta)

Williams said the timing of the government's change of direction on the Rutherford Scholarships indicates the public pressure had an effect.

"I think they recognized that it was a political liability," she said. "It looked like students weren't going to be able to go to school because the government hadn't figured out its finances yet."

The money for the Rutherfords comes from the Alberta Heritage Scholarship endowment fund. Cash flows in and out of the fund don't affect the province's operating budget but do affect its net financial assets. More money in the fund means a lower net debt.

If finances were, indeed, a factor in the delay, as Williams believes they were, she said the government could have simply acknowledged that and then said that, after some deliberation, they had decided the scholarship was too important to wait for the fall budget.

"The problem is that they didn't acknowledge it and they claim that it was not their fault, essentially, and that's damaged their credibility and raised questions about their competence," she said.

"This looks like they're being misleading, to put it kindly."

Lori Williams is a professor in the faculty of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC)

Corrections

  • The surname of Andy Weiler has been corrected. It appeared incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.
    Jan 08, 2020 3:07 PM MT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robson Fletcher
Reporter / Editor

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.