Alberta College of Art and Design teeters on 'verge of unsustainability,' report warns

Precarious finances, leadership issues and an outdated curriculum are among the reasons that the Alberta College of Art and Design faces an uncertain future, according to an internal report commissioned by the Calgary-based school.

'If we don't work to address it now ... it will be a very big problem,' says president

The president of ACAD's faculty association, Natali Rodrigues, says the school should give instructors more input in decision making. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

An internal report for the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary paints a bleak picture of the school's future, saying changes need to be made if the school is to remain financially sound. 

The report commissioned by the college was completed by Ronald B. Bond Consulting and distributed internally, but has yet to be released publicly.

CBC News obtained a copy of the report, which says, "despite its past and current record of achievement, the institution is on the verge of unsustainability." 

The report points to seven root factors for the college's problems and 22 "action items" on which the school can move to correct its path. 

Among the seven contributing factors listed in the report are the "comings and goings" of those who hold senior leadership positions, a failure to update the programs and curriculum at the school to stay competitive, and "integrated planning at ACAD is largely absent." 

Revenues not keeping up with inflation

ACAD president Daniel Doz told CBC News Thursday the bottom line is that revenues from the school of roughly 1,200 students is being outpaced by inflation, putting it in a financially precarious situation. 

"The institution is not in trouble. This year, we're doing very well. But if we don't do anything, then we'll get into trouble," Doz said. 

"If we don't work to address it now, in five years, in 10 years, then it will be a very big problem."

Doz said inflation for post-secondary institutions generally runs at about twice the levels seen by the general population once costs such as salaries and heating buildings are factored in. 

"We're really looking at the near future, how do we move forward?" 

Third year ACAD student Caleb Scholes told CBC News the criticisms made in the report were not a surprise.

"You know, why are they cutting this? Why are they doing this? Are they doing it for the school? Are these decisions ... for the good of the students and the artists that are here? Or is it, like, just financial decisions?

"It's starting to feel like that, that it's all about numbers and stuff, and less about the experience at the college itself."

Province rejects expansion plans

This summer ACAD submitted a sustainability and growth funding proposal to the province which was given a "categorical rejection," according to the consultant's report. 

One of the requests was for support for a plan to double the school's enrolment. 

Doz said the rejection does not affect regular funding to the institution, but it eliminates the possibility of its growth plan.

The school received more than $15 million in provincial funding in the 2015-6 school year, which is the most recent financial report the school has disclosed. 

"So what we're now looking at in light of this is: What else can we do? That's the piece we're working on now."
Daniel Doz has been the president and CEO of ACAD since 2010. (ACAD)

The college's administrators have been tasked by the government with looking at ACAD's budget for the next three years to see how they can "live within their means," Doz said.

Tuition increases a possibility, president says

A big piece of ACAD's financial puzzle depends on decisions made by the province. The Ministry of Advance Education is looking at changes to both funding models and rules surrounding tuition levels.

Doz said until they know what those reforms look like, they won't have a good idea of how to proceed. 

For now, they are looking at the potential designation of ACAD as a university institution as opposed to a college — an application that was submitted to the province about a year ago.

Administration is considering raising tuition fees, but currently the NDP government has a freeze in place. 

"It all will depend on what the government comes out with as a process and methodology for tuition," Doz said. 

"We're going to have to do something. And so we're really putting everything on the table, taking really a closer look at, is there anything we can do, that we can change, to help us weather this period of time."

ACAD not alone, minister says

Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt says ACAD isn't the only institution which has come to the province with financial stability concerns — Athabasca University and Mount Royal University were the others he listed. 

Schmidt suggests ACAD and other institutions should hold off reevaluating the programs they offer and sustainability plans going forward until after new provincial legislation is unveiled by the end of 2017. 
Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt says the province is committed to making ACAD financially sustainable. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

"Once we've made our decisions on the funding and tuition reviews, I think we'll be in a better position to discuss with ACAD what the path forward for them will be," Schmidt told CBC News. 

"We want everyone to know that ACAD is an important institution to the province and we're committed to making sure that it's sustainable in the future to provide an affordable and accessible education to the students who are going there or who are considering going there in the future." 


Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and conflict and is currently based in London, UK. She's covered news stories across Canada and from a dozen countries around the world, including Ukraine, Hungary, France and Iraq. She has also worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.