Public education advocate questions why religious universities were spared cuts

A public education advocate is concerned the provincial government's grant funding cuts appear to favour religious colleges and universities over other post-secondaries.

Advanced education budget was cut by 5% this year

Alberta's government has cut grant funding to a number of post-secondary institutions, like the University of Alberta, while others, like Ambrose University, have been spared. (University of Alberta, Ambrose University)

A public education advocate is concerned the provincial government's grant funding cuts appear to favour religious colleges and universities over other post-secondaries.

Alberta's UCP government cut the budget for advanced education by five per cent this year, providing $5.1 billion for operations. 

That meant grant funding reductions for large institutions like the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, polytechnics like SAIT and NAIT, and smaller institutions like Keyano College and The Banff Centre.

Five private institutions didn't see any funding cuts — Ambrose University, Burman University, St. Mary's University, The King's University and Concordia University. The first four are all Christian universities, while Concordia is a former faith-based campus.

"The fact that Christian or Christian-connected organizations exclusively didn't get cut is another one of the masterful dog whistles that [Premier Jason] Kenney is so good at," said Luke Fevin, founder of Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning, a secular public school advocacy group. "It's a really astute political play."

Uneven cuts made based on ability to bear, gov't says

Laurie Chandler, spokesperson for the advanced education minister, says the cuts were made unevenly to ensure "a sustainable post-secondary system."

"These small institutions would not have been able to absorb the five per cent reduction this year," Chandler told CBC News in an email. "Funding allocations were based off of the annual operating surplus of institutions and ability to bear."

When asked if institutions were spared due to their religious affiliation, Chandler pointed to Concordia's inclusion on that list.

"Concordia is not faith-based, shattering the premise of your hypothesis," she said. "These institutions on a per student basis are funded considerably less than public institutions. Approximately 35 per cent."

When asked why a school like Alberta University of the Arts, with a $399,200 average surplus, will be impacted by the cuts but Concordia, with a $1,777,782 average surplus, won't be, Chandler did not respond.

Fevin said he fears the government is attacking public education.

"[The government] will chip away at public institutions, be it health or education, so that private becomes more and more appetizing to the public," Fevin said, pointing to last month's removal of the word "public" from the name of school boards in the province.

He said now is not the time to make cuts to education, period.

"When you have a province that desperately needs innovation and diversification, forcing people away from post-secondary to a shrinking job market seems counter-intuitive …it's our post-secondary students that are very often innovators and entrepreneurs," he said.

"If we start putting additional weights on them through the reduction of grants, the increasing of fees or even the weight of student debt, then these people are less likely when they've come out of post-secondary education to take the risk of starting a business."

K-12 funding also questioned

Another budget line item has been stoking public vs. private discussions on social media, but the government is saying the quote is being taken out of context.

The budget states that: "To ensure Alberta students have access to private early childhood services, home education programs, charter schools, private schools and alternative programming, $400 million is allocated in 2019-20."

The $400 million number raised eyebrows of some critics online, who juxtaposed it with the funding freeze across the board for K-12 education — despite the fact the student population is expected to grow by 15,000.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the minister of education, said that doesn't mean the province has hiked alternative funding by $400 million — it's actually a $4 million increase.

"Alberta Education is expecting enrolment growth in independent schools and early childhood operators to be 4.2 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the entire school system. This growth has been accounted for in all systems, including our public system," he wrote in an emailed statement.

"Under the NDP, $396 million was provided for independent, charter, homeschooling and private early childhood services. Any modest increase in Budget 2019 was solely the result of enrolment growth."

Fevin said it's still not quite fair the government is saying growth is accounted for, something the Alberta Teachers' Association has echoed.

"What's getting missed in this conversation that we're going to get to half-a-billion a year shortfall," he said. "I have three kids in public education here and I know my friends are already hurting paying the busing fees."

With files from Helen Pike