Alberta post-secondary funding will be tied to performance

The Alberta government announced Monday that it intends to tie post-secondary funding to performance measures. 

Details to be worked out, but government wants targets to determine grant allocation

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced changes to the way post-secondaries will be funded on Monday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The Alberta government announced Monday that it intends to tie post-secondary funding to performance measures. 

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said each institution in the province will be consulted on the measures and will be able to establish their own priorities, alongside some system-wide targets. 

The top priority for the University of Calgary, for example, would likely be different from the top priority for the Alberta University of the Arts. 

That said, the government does have some ideas. 

"There are, indeed, several indicators that government would like to see, which include graduation and completion rates, graduate employment, experiential learning, enrolment both domestic and international, commercialization of [intellectual property], research capacity, quality of teaching and student experience and student satisfaction," said Nicolaides. 

April 1 deadline

Once the metrics are established, the government will tie Campus Alberta Grants — approximately 40 per cent of funding — to those metrics, starting April 1. If, for example, a university meets only 90 per cent of its targets, it will receive only 90 per cent of its provincial funding. 

Those funding agreements will be in place for three-year intervals rather than annual renewals. 

"Changing course every year does not allow our institutions the flexibility and freedom that they need to improve and reach their targets," said Nicolaides.

The government will implement the new policy in stages, with 15 per cent of funding tied to the measures starting in April, and ramping up to the full 40 per cent by 2022-2023.

'Unintended consequences'

Sadiya Nazir, chair of Council of Alberta University Students, which represents students at Alberta's universities, said it's cautiously optimistic about the move but that more information is needed. 

"Our concerns are that any metrics that are in place, we don't want them to negatively impact students at the end of the day," she said. 

"And so our hope is that any metrics that are implemented in this model have data that is sound and will not lead to any unintended consequences."

Her organization's main concern is around transparency and ensuring the public has access to information on why the metrics were chosen and how they might impact students.

Garrett Koehler, with the Alberta Students' Executive Council, which represents students at Alberta's colleges, said his organization is excited about the changes. 

"I think it's going to force institutions and admin to really start thinking a little bit more closely on what they're spending their money on, what strategic directions are gonna be going towards, which ultimately save students, institutions and taxpayers money," he said. 

Bad data

Not everyone, however, is sold on the new measures. 

The Alberta Graduate Provincial Advocacy Council said that while funding transparency should be applauded, it shouldn't come at the cost of adequate funding. 

"We need safeguards to ensure an institution doesn't get caught in a downward spiral. If a university isn't able to reach its performance targets, its funding shouldn't be immediately cut," said the organization's chair, Marcela Lopes. 

Peter Schryvers is the author of a new book called Bad Data: Why We Measure the Wrong Things and Often Miss the Metrics That Matter. It looks at how decisions are made based on faulty criteria, including decisions in post-secondaries. 

"One of the things, actually two of the things that [the UCP] are proposing to evaluate schools on are the income of their graduates later in the future and then also graduation rates," he said. 

"So with graduation rates, one way it skews organizations is that one of the easiest ways to actually increase graduation rates is to make it easier to graduate."

He also points to jobs that are important in society but which make less money, such as social work and nursing. 

"So what will happen is that post-secondary institutions will start to look at ways to manage those admissions," said Schryvers. 

One thing Alberta did better than other jurisdictions, he said, is allowing each institution to tailor its own metrics. 

"Having broad brush strokes is never a good idea," he said. 

"However, you also have a situation when people can choose their own metrics, they're going to choose ones that they're really good at, and they're going to downplay ones that they're bad at."

Schryvers said that beyond relying on bad data to make decisions, there's also value in that which cannot be quantified. 

"You have to be careful not to only care about the things that you measure, but also care about the things that you just can't count," he said. 

Opposition response

The opposition NDP said the moves will force post-secondaries to track additional metrics. 

"The UCP's record when it comes to Advanced Education is tuition hikes, the elimination of education and tuition tax credits, increasing the interest on student loans, and cutting grants for universities and colleges, all to pay for this government's $4.7-billion, no-jobs corporate handout," said MLA Sarah Hoffman in a news release.

"Rather than trying to distract from his failures on this file and binding our institutions and students with greater amounts of red tape, Minister Nicolaides should be focusing on undoing the devastating cuts they've already imposed." 


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.

With files from Lucie Edwardson