Calgary

OPINION | The UCP's anti-intellectual agenda is harming education — and the economy

With its anti-educator and anti-intellectual ideology, the UCP is making it almost impossible for Alberta to produce the highly educated and entrepreneurial workforce that we desperately need, Jennifer Garrison writes in this opinion piece.

If Albertans want a strong educational system, we can’t treat research and critical thinking as the enemy

Striking teachers in front of the Alberta Legislature in 2002. Alberta teachers haven't walked off the job or been locked out since that time, when about 21,000 teachers joined a provincewide strike and hundreds of thousands of students were shut out of classrooms. (CBC)

This column is an opinion by Jennifer Garrison, associate professor of English at St. Mary's University in Calgary and past president of its faculty association. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ

At first, the United Conservative Party government's cuts to education in Alberta don't seem to make much sense.

A strong K-12 and post-secondary education system is a sound investment in the provincial economy: a strong private sector requires a well-trained and highly educated workforce. 

So why would a government interested in economic growth cut education so dramatically?

Over the past few weeks since the budget was announced, I've heard a lot of people suggest that the UCP is promoting some sort of evangelical Christian agenda with these cuts to education, but I don't think that's quite right. 

Rather, the ideology behind these cuts is much more transparent — and even more troubling. The UCP government is showing itself to be anti-intellectual and fundamentally opposed to the voices of teachers and academics. 

An attack on educators

When the government announced its differential cuts to post-secondary education last month, many were horrified to discover that the only five of Alberta's 26 institutions that were not cut were the four Christian universities — Ambrose University, Burman University, St. Mary's University, The King's University — and the formerly faith-based Concordia University of Edmonton.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange shakes hands with Premier Jason Kenney after being sworn in. Post-secondary institutions with large faculty bargaining units face huge cuts under the UCP that are almost certain to reduce education quality and working conditions, writes Jennifer Garrison. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

However, I think it is a mistake to assume the cuts are primarily religiously motivated, especially since Concordia, by far the largest of the five, is no longer a Christian university.

Instead of looking at why these five institutions were not cut, it's important to look at why the other larger institutions were. 

By cutting funding from the large public institutions, the UCP is cutting the ground out from underneath large faculty associations that represent the rights of academic staff.

The religiously affiliated institutions are notable in that their collective bargaining power is quite weak. Not only are these institutions small, but Concordia only recently unionized and St. Mary's just ratified its first non-union collective agreement two years ago; to my knowledge, the other three universities have no collective agreements at all.

The large institutions with large faculty bargaining units — like the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University and the University of Alberta — are facing huge cuts and those cuts are almost certain to reduce both the quality of education and the working conditions for faculty. 

When post-secondary institutions face cuts, they almost never cut administration — they cut faculty. Over the past few decades, faced with less government funding, universities across North America have saved money by hiring underpaid contract faculty: highly qualified instructors who might earn roughly $30,000 to $45,000 a year for full-time work (if they are lucky enough to receive a full teaching load).

Alberta's UCP government cut grant funding to 21 of Alberta's 26 post-secondary institutions, but spared the four Christian universities and a formerly faith-based university. But that doesn't mean the cuts are primarily religiously motivated, writes Jennifer Garrison. (University of Alberta, Ambrose University)

Since these contract faculty receive limited funding, they typically don't have the institutional resources to engage in the research and innovation we expect from our professors — and they certainly don't have the job security to speak out against harmful government policies.

The government's cuts to public K-12 education appear similarly motivated: to disempower the voice of the Alberta Teachers' Association. 

Although some education advocates worry that the government's support for private and charter schools is religiously motivated, I think the government is more motivated by an opposition to teachers' organized labour. After all, Alberta's public charter schools are mandated to be non-religious and tuition-free.

What really sets teachers in Alberta's private schools and public charter schools apart from public school teachers is that they are not active members of the ATA. 

We need to empower educators to be vocal advocates for our education system — not try to divide and silence them.

An anti-intellectual agenda

The UCP government has increasingly shown itself to be anti-intellectual. By cutting the research-intensive universities in the province, the government is gutting the province's ability to engage in cutting edge research and innovation. 

Instead of encouraging the open exchange of ideas in higher education, the government has mischaracterized research-based thinking as extremist and left-wing. 

For example, the advanced education minister has asked all post-secondary institutions to create redundant "free speech" policies. The only real effect of asking for these redundant policies is that it allows the government to publicly misrepresent our post-secondary institutions as ideological enemies of conservative politics. 

Further, by halting the K-12 curriculum overhaul, the UCP is actively ignoring the latest educational research. The revised curriculum was the result of the collaboration of teachers and academics across and beyond the province, but the UCP halted its implementation, seemingly dismissing the tremendous research and data behind it. 

A policy proposal on the agenda for the upcoming UCP annual general meeting argues that the Alberta Education curriculum has led students to become "increasingly radicalized by extremist ideologies."

Some Alberta students have also voiced concern about cuts affecting education. Here, about 200 protesters, mainly students from MacEwan University and the University of Alberta, met on the steps of the Alberta Legislature on Nov. 18, 2019, to protest provincial funding cuts. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

There is absolutely no evidence for this outrageous claim. Rather than objecting to extremist ideology, it seems that the UCP is upset that the new curriculum will include research-based facts: things like Indigenous history and environmental science.

If Albertans want a strong educational system, we can't treat research and critical thinking as the enemy. 

Our economy won't get stronger by encouraging ignorance. Through its anti-educator and anti-intellectual ideology, the UCP is making it almost impossible for Alberta to produce the highly educated and entrepreneurial workforce that we desperately need.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jennifer Garrison is an associate professor of English at St. Mary's University in Calgary and past president of its faculty association.

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