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OPINION | UCP meddling undermines Alberta universities' basic purpose

The goal is to coax a crisis out of nothing at all, reduce post-secondary institutions’ autonomy by gutting their funding, and narrow researchers’ fields of inquiry to ones supported by the government’s ideology.

If there was ever a moment to stand up to bad methods that lead to worse outcomes, that moment is now

The motto of the University of Alberta means 'whatsoever things are true.' (University of Alberta)

This column is an opinion from Eric Strikwerda, who teaches Canadian History at Athabasca University.

Quaecumque vera. It's the motto of the University of Alberta, my alma mater. It means whatsoever things are true, and for more than a century, Alberta students and researchers and professors have engaged in a collective project in its pursuit. 

Quaecumque vera is not just a slogan or a pithy Latin phrase adorning the U of A's crest.

It means to pursue truth no matter its implications; it means to follow evidence wherever it leads; it means to seek out deeper insights into our place in the world, into our place in the universe. Even if that pursuit is uncomfortable. Maybe especially if it's uncomfortable. 

It's on these principles that the bedrock of our very society rests. All universities, both here in Alberta and around the world, follow the same basic project. It's not a complicated one. 

Lately, however, we seem to be moving ever further from truth. 

In early September, Alberta's so-called Blue Ribbon Panel reported on the province's finances. With an analysis ranging widely over the main business of government, including health care, education, and social services spending, the Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that Alberta spends too much and suggested ways to save money.

Evidence of this overspending was scant, and what evidence there was appeared more cherry-picked to support the panel's conclusion than it did to reveal the actual state of the province's finances. The panel's suggestions for savings came straight out of the now widely discredited austerity playbook.

Janice MacKinnon, right, chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances, and Travis Toews, minister of Finance, speak to the media in September 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The panel's report was a political document, light on facts, and heavy on ideology.

Whatsoever may be true? Not so much.

By January, news reports made clear that the panel itself was far from the "independent body" meant to report honestly on the province's finances.

The day before the panel's members were even publicly named, panel chair Janice MacKinnon received straight from the premier's office a draft op-ed meant to be published under her name.

"The op-ed is great," MacKinnon wrote back to staff in the premier's office, "Well done. I have no changes."

The Calgary Herald ran the op-ed four days later, under the headline "Opinion: If We Make Measured Choices Now, We Can Avoid Draconian Cuts Later."

Whatsoever may be true? Not so much.

The MacKinnon Panel report on Alberta’s Finances was released in September 2019. The panel’s report was a political document, light on facts, and heavy on ideology. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But whatever. These sorts of panels, after all, are usually cobbled together hastily and made up of panelists with a decided bias sympathetic to the governing party's ideology.

They're PR agents meant to cast a generous light on the government benches. They ought not be used as credible blueprints for future policy directions.

Nevertheless, 26 recommendations stood precariously atop the report's shaky foundations.

One of them called for the implementation of a performance-based post-secondary funding model. It wanted the province to "link funding to the achievement of specific goals or priorities," including skills required for the "current and future labour market," the commercialization of research and technology, and, more vaguely, "achieving broader societal and economic goals."

Not surprisingly, the minister of Advanced Education adopted the recommendation enthusiastically, announcing in January the imposition of a performance-based funding model on all public universities and colleges.

The precise details of how it's all supposed to work remain as yet unclear. What is clear is that the ministry expects Alberta's post-secondary institutions to concentrate their efforts on serving the needs of the labour market (read employers), commercializing research to serve business interests, and measuring post-secondary success in terms of graduate incomes.

The trouble is that all available evidence shows clearly that none of these performance-based metrics actually achieves the goals they set out.

Researchers have carefully shown how the needs of the labour market are dynamic, and that trying to match today's university programs to tomorrow's labour market needs is folly.

They have documented how efforts at commercializing research and technology in other jurisdictions have led to a narrowing of research and a strangling of innovation.

And they have pointed out the obvious: that universities and colleges have no influence over the incomes of their graduates. 

Students at the University of Alberta make their way to class. Trying to match today’s university programs to tomorrow’s labour market needs is folly. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Here's the thing, though. The ministry already knows all about the failure of performance-based metrics. It tried to make them work in the early 1990s here in Alberta, and then quietly shelved the idea when it became clear that it wouldn't work.

So why push ahead with such an ill-considered scheme anyway? (This is where the attack on truth lies). Because improving Alberta's post-secondary system is not the goal. It never was.

The goal instead is to coax a crisis out of nothing at all, reduce post-secondary institutions' autonomy by gutting their funding, and narrow researchers' fields of inquiry to ones supported by the government's ideology. 

Make no mistake. I'm deeply unhappy with the broader direction this government is taking our province. Unhappy, but not surprised. After all, austerity governments gonna austere. 

But I'm utterly disappointed in the senior leadership of our post-secondary institutions for their weak-kneed acquiescence to the minister's cynical directives. If ever there was a moment to stand up to bad methods that lead to worse outcomes, then that moment is now. 

Quaecumque vera. It means we don't truck in untruths here. It means we don't trade in falsehoods.

Well, it's supposed to, anyway.


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

About the Author

Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian History at Athabasca University.

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