Big cuts hinder ability to help economic recovery, post-secondary groups say

Groups from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge and SAIT say schools play a key role in attracting, training and retaining talent in Alberta — and that mission will be affected by less money.

Post-secondary institutions warn provincial budget cuts will have consequences on attracting, keeping talent

The University of Calgary and the University of Alberta are among the schools getting funding cuts this year as a part of the province's budget for 2021. (David Bell/CBC/University of Alberta)

Alberta university and college groups are concerned that cuts to post secondary funding in the provincial budget will hamper their ability to contribute to the province's economic growth. 

Groups from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) say schools play a key role in attracting, training and retaining talent — and that mission is difficult with less money. 

"The future is with our students and the ability for those students to progress ... and to be productive and to add to the growth of the economy," said Blair Howes, president of the faculty association at SAIT.

Budget 2021 included a 5.4 per cent cut for post secondary operations, representing belt tightening of $135 million this year for Alberta's universities and colleges. It's the latest chop in the government's multi-year plan to reduce its funding contributions for the schools. 

Several groups from the schools say if they're unable to stay competitive, students will leave the province for other schools and are unlikely to return to Alberta for their careers.

"We're going to see some of these graduates and students not being able to be employed in this province. They'll move on and probably will never come back, which is not going to help the economic recovery of this province in any way, shape or form," Howes said. 

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The U of A is getting the biggest chop, losing more than $60 million in funding from the province — a total of more than $170 million over the last two years. 

President Bill Flanagan told CBC News the university has restructured in order to adapt to the cuts and he's confident students won't see a change in the quality of their education. The U of A is projecting increased enrollment, but Flanagan is aware of the challenges ahead. 

"We're actively in conversations with the provincial government, hoping that the provincial government will also step forward and provide funding to support this growth," he said. 

"We want these great, talented young students to stay in Alberta and help build the economy of tomorrow." 

Minister Demetrios Nicolaides' office said the government is working to build a plan for work-integrated learning, reducing red tape and strengthening innovation. 

"There is no question that our post-secondary institutions have a critical role to play in the economic recovery of our province," reads an emailed statement. 

The minister told a committee last week that the government is trying to bring public funding of Alberta's schools more in line with other provinces like Ontario and B.C.

Fear of 'brain drain'

The schools have laid off hundreds of staff and are working to adapt to the cuts, but many warn that after the administration is fully thinned out, further restructuring will impact tuition costs, program development and student experiences. 

The U of C said it will be getting $25 million less, putting 2021's provincial operational contributions lower than they were in 2011. Its budget has been reduced by 18 per cent since 2019. 

"We look at the brain drain that Alberta is going to experience as we drive students and academics away from attending university here or working at universities here," said Frank Finley, president of the school's students union.

"As we drive people out of their education and as we drive academics out of province, it will be too late when we see the full economic effects to realize these dire mistakes."

The U of L will be receiving 5.8 per cent ($5.7 million) less in program and operations grants from the province this year. 

"We will continue to advocate to the province how critical our university, and the post-secondary sector, are to the economic recovery and diversification of our province," a letter to staff from president Mike Mahon reads. "In the meantime, it is essential we adapt to these budget realities."

Mount Royal University fared better, receiving a smaller cut to its budget, 2.5 per cent.

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A role for schools and the province

The Opposition NDP have called for a reversal of the UCP's cuts to post-secondary institutions, a figure they estimate at around $690 million.

At a committee meeting last week, advanced education critic David Eggen pressed the minister on the cuts. 

"How can universities possibly help with Alberta's economic recovery when they're forced to cut programs and jobs just to keep the lights on in the face of these significant cuts," he said. 

The schools say they're looking for more certainty and predictability from the government about what funding will look like in the years to come.

"My question to the government of Alberta is, is the government prepared to reinvest in the sector," Flanagan said, casting his attention to the anticipated growth of the student body. 

"We want them to stay in Alberta. We want them to acquire all of the skills that they will need as the economy of Alberta continues to evolve and change. I'm actually very optimistic, but there is a very important role for the province here."