Unintended consequences and the change to Alberta post-secondary funding

There are unintended consequences whenever a government decides that post-secondary performance is something that can be distilled on a spreadsheet, or that the value of a university education is in its contribution to the workforce.

UCP government's shift to performance-based funding could have a profound impact on colleges and universities

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced changes to the way post-secondaries will be funded on Jan 20. (Mike Symington/CBC)

At Mount Royal University in Calgary, there are two courses that regularly appear on the Top 10 list for most fails, withdrawals and poor grades. The micro- and macro-economics courses are required for those wishing to go into business, economics or policy studies. Both are hard. 

So if the Alberta government ties funding to completion rates, what would MRU do in order to protect its budget?

"If you remove those courses, it's going to make it a lot easier to graduate," says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at MRU. 

"Do we just remove all of the really tough courses to make it easier to graduate? What is the purpose here?"

New model for Alberta

On Jan. 20, Alberta's Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides stepped up to a podium and announced that starting on April 1, the UCP government would tie funding for the province's universities and colleges to a set of yet-to-be determined performance metrics. It would start with 15 per cent of funding on the table, before ramping up to 40 per cent by 2022-2023.

Each school would be able to establish their own priority metrics, conforming to their strengths. But the minister did have a list of what the government would like some of the system-wide measures to be, from completion rates to post-graduate employment to enrolment. 

If you only achieve 80 per cent of your targets, you only get 80 per cent of your funds. Shape up, or face cuts. 

Standing on that stage Nicolaides took pains to point out that this wasn't unusual, that 35 U.S. states have implemented some form of performance funding, as have the U.K., Norway, Hong Kong and others. But much like the metrics he was proposing, Nicolaides was measuring the wrong thing, citing quantity as an inherent good.

When it comes to the province's places of higher learning, the impact of looking at quantity over quality is, well, immeasurable. 

The measurables

Bratt's fears about the fate of the dreaded first year economics courses is not just idle speculation. 

Kevin Dougherty, a professor of higher education and education policy at Columbia University in New York City, wrote a book on performance-based funding in the U.S. and says institutions made changes after the funding model comes in.

Some reported being more selective of the students they enrolled, typically meaning more advantaged students that are easier to graduate, as well as removing courses that were seen as "impediments" to graduation. 

"Some of those courses that were being removed had the effect of reducing the academic quality of their programs," he said.

Dougherty said the European experience hasn't resulted in improvements in student performance but that the overall impact on research has been positive. 

And when it comes to saving money? At least in the American experience, the data didn't support the idea of an improved bottom line. 

In short, there are unintended consequences whenever a government decides post-secondary performance is something that can be distilled on a spreadsheet, or that the value of a university education is in its contribution to the workforce, to the future earnings of its grads.

Are social workers less valuable to society than geologists? Should the government get a say in the answer to that question?

Lessons from elsewhere

If the government is to have a say, at least it appears to be taking some lessons to heart from other jurisdictions in applying performance-based funding. 

It has reached out to institutions and student groups and wants them to be part of the process for establishing which metrics to apply. It's allowing different metrics at each university and college. It says it will look at blending metrics to reduce the unintended consequences. It's not making post-secondaries compete with one another. It's allowing time for institutions to grow into the new reality by phasing in the model. 

The University of Calgary is just one of the institutions that will have to prepare for funding changes introduced by the UCP government. (University of Calgary)

And yet, the move is coming fast. April 1 is a tight deadline for proper consultation with all stakeholders and institutions in the province and finding the right mix of metrics will take time, patience and tweaks.

Even those supportive of the move, like the Alberta Graduate Provincial Advocacy Council, want to ensure institutions aren't immediately punished for not meeting targets. The group also stresses the need for meaningful consultations.

In the current political context, that could be a challenge. 

The UCP factor

Since being elected last year, the United Conservative Party government has shown an insatiable appetite for enforcing structural change in Alberta. It has cut budgets, gone after public sector unions, slashed corporate taxes, tore up a years-long curriculum review to establish its own and threatened post-secondaries with further cuts, just to name a few initiatives. 

The government has established panels and inquiries with seemingly pre-determined conclusions and is spending $30 million on a war room to aggressively attack critics of the oil and gas industry. 

It was elected by pounding home three priorities: jobs, the economy and pipelines. By all accounts it intends on sticking to them.

The UCP does not pull any punches and has now set its sights on how to transform post-secondary funding in a system that outspends most other provinces.

"We do fundamentally want to ensure that we are indeed, as government, building a stronger connection between education and jobs," Nicolaides said while speaking to CBC's Alberta at Noon.

If the government wants to cut funding and change the priorities of the universities and colleges in Alberta, the short historical record suggests they'll find a way to make that happen. 

In a system that is, or should be, more than just a factory for churning out good employees, the impact of that is unquantifiable.

The immeasurables

Because university is not just about the job you land. It's not just about your ability to match up column A with row B. It has an immeasurable quality that, yes, does have an impact on someone's ability to function in the world and the workforce. 

"There is nothing more valuable for a nation than allowing its citizens to explore their potential," said one caller in to Alberta at Noon last week, as the show discussed the looming funding changes.

Another told of how he dropped out of university and would register in the performance metrics as a failure but that his university experience helped him, and continues to help him, become a better tradesperson.

Even in the context of the workforce, how do you measure critical thinking and its importance to the modern economy?

There is, and ought to be, a complexity to universities. Imposing metrics limits what is possible. 

Once metrics are in place, they become the focus. The metrics come to define us. We stop looking beyond them. 

"If we're going to have metrics, how do we build those in a way that really captures the complexity of what we want out of universities?" asks Dougherty.

To what end?

Marcela Lopes, the chair of the Alberta Graduate Provincial Advocacy Council, doesn't believe schools will cheat. They won't make it easier to graduate in order to meet funding targets. She's hopeful the government will listen and be thoughtful in its approach. 

She says her organization supports more transparency in how institutions are funded.

But is that transparency worth the unintended consequences? And what if the UCP government follows its familiar pattern and uses consultation as cover for imposing its own agenda? 

Is there a price on academic freedom, including the freedom to fail? How much does it cost society to watch a university or college enter a funding death spiral?

"Who's going to hold the hammer in establishing the targets?" asks Bratt about final decisions on the metrics. 

And what strains of thought will be broken off by those swinging it?


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.


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