Alberta considers boards to govern several universities, colleges

The Alberta government is considering the creation of new boards to oversee multiple universities, colleges or polytechnic institutions in the province.

Consultant studying systemic change for province's post-secondary system

Mike Mahon, a grey-haired man with classes in a business suit, stands in front of a college building surrounded by trees.
Mike Mahon, chair of the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta and president of the University of Lethbridge, has been part of provincewide consultations on revamping Alberta's post-secondary education system. He says the idea of creating larger boards to oversee multiple colleges or universities would be helpful to set a common direction, but only if institutions retain autonomy over how they each operate. (Submitted by University of Lethbridge)

The Alberta government is considering the creation of new boards to oversee multiple universities, colleges or polytechnic institutions in the province.

The proposal is one of several recommendations put forward by international consultant McKinsey and Company as they conduct a $3.7-million review of Alberta's post-secondary education system, according to documents obtained by CBC.

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides has said it is an option he is examining closely. He says the province's 26 institutions need better coordination between them and more common goals.

In a telephone town hall Tuesday night, Nicolaides said he's not trying to replicate a governance model from other countries, but adopt elements of other models that might work for the province.

"I don't believe that a copy-paste approach is appropriate," he said. "I believe we need a made-in Alberta solution."

But appointing superboards to reign over multiple institutions may be a hard sell to some universities and colleges that hold dear their autonomy and identities.

Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Lethbridge, said it would be a "game-changer" to have advisory boards that help schools coordinate and cooperate.

But Mahon, who is also chair of the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta, said a larger board making financial or operational decisions for universities would be a bridge too far.

"I've talked to our board members who've said that their enthusiasm for engaging with the university will be impacted if they see the University of Lethbridge really being governed by some entity that's likely in Edmonton, maybe in Calgary — definitely not in Lethbridge," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Donations and alumni engagement could also be affected he said, and at a time when Nicolaides is telling post-secondary institutions to rely less on public funding.

Rowan Ley, chair of the Council of Alberta University Students, said students now have ready access to their schools' boards of governors to raise concerns. Transferring operational decisions to a superboard could jeopardize that access, he said.

He fears "a board being vested with most of the important powers and then delegating those powers down to universities, and basically leaving them scraps."

Tuition changes, smoother credit transfer

The McKinsey review is supposed to be the deepest dive into Alberta's post-secondary system in 13 years. Minister Nicolaides said Alberta's system is one of the most expensive per capita in the country, but that better training for careers and improving student experiences are other goals of the review.

In the confidential McKinsey presentation, dated November 2020, the consultants also suggest Alberta deregulate tuition and improve the provincial system of needs-based student aid.

According to the advanced education ministry, Alberta colleges and universities have always had some tuition regulation dating back to 1970. The federal government paid for apprenticeship training in the province until 1997, when tuition was introduced.

In the Tuesday town hall, Nicolaides said the government may need to provide more scholarships and awards based on need. He said he wants tuition in Alberta to stay within the national average.

Rowan Ley, Vice President External at the University of Alberta’s Students’ Union and chair of the Council of Alberta University Students, said affordability and access must be a foremost consideration when the government makes changes to the post-secondary system. (Submitted by Rowan Ley)

Ley said Alberta is among the least generous Canadian jurisdictions at providing students funding based on need.

Other data shows Alberta post-secondary students are carrying the highest debt loads in the country to finance their education.

Ley, who has participated throughout the review, is pushing hard for better financial help for students. When the United Conservative Party government axed a tuition freeze in 2019 and instead capped yearly tuition hikes, scholarships and grants did not keep up, he said.

"Affordability is going to drop dramatically," he said on Tuesday.

'It's boring,' outside consultant says of proposals

Among McKinsey's other recommendations are to increase the number of "micro-credentials," or short-term certificates schools offer.

They say students should more easily move course credits between institutions and be able to, for example, get credit for a diploma if they complete half a degree and then leave school.

Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA), and who is not involved in the review, says many of the recommendations he's seen are uninspired.

He said it would also be risky for the government to completely deregulate tuition for common undergraduate programs in arts and sciences.

"It's boring," he says of the proposals he's seen. "There's almost nothing in there that people inside the system couldn't have told you to do six months ago."

Superboards for university governance have been in use by some American states for more than 50 years, he said.

He also said the Alberta government is substantially overpaying the consultant for the work, which he said could be done for a quarter of the cost — particularly during the pandemic when in-person meetings weren't possible.

Although McKinsey was initially to hand reports and recommendations to the minister before the end of 2020, the advanced education department said the pandemic has shifted timelines later.

The government is expected to choose and unveil a strategy by the summer.

Apprenticeship legislation coming

Nicolaides also said Tuesday evening legislation is coming this spring to modernize Alberta's approach to trades and apprenticeships.

He said the government aims to substantially increase the number of apprenticeship programs beyond the approximately 50 fields currently approved for on-the-job learning.

"I believe very strongly that something like coding, graphic design, marketing, can be taught through an apprenticeship style," Nicolaides said.

Last fall, a government-appointed skills for jobs task force recommended apprenticeships be offered beyond traditional skilled trades.

The task force said the Apprenticeship and Industry Training Act was outdated and should be completely re-written and that government should attempt to elevate the public perception of careers in trades.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.