Incoming University of Alberta president wants 10,000 more students by 2025

The University of Alberta’s incoming president plans to substantially increase student enrolment to offset a drop in provincial government funding.

Faculty mergers, centralization on the table to grapple with provincial funding cuts

The University of Alberta plans to permanently cut $120 million spending each year by 2022. (CBC)

The University of Alberta's incoming president plans to substantially increase student enrolment to offset a drop in provincial government funding.

President-elect Bill Flanagan, who officially takes the helm of Alberta's largest university on July 1, wants to see 50,000 students enrolled by 2025 — a jump of about 25 per cent.

It's part of what university leaders describe online as an "ambitious new program of revenue generation," that will drastically reduce the school's dependence on provincial government funding from about 60 per cent of its budget to less than 40.

They have little choice. The Alberta government reduced its grant to the institution this year by nine per cent, or $110 million. The reduction is part of the government's three-year plan to chop funding to post-secondary institutions by 20 per cent.

The province set that goal after a blue ribbon panel of experts reviewed Alberta's spending and concluded Alberta's government spends more per post-secondary student than Quebec, B.C. or Ontario.

"The nature of the cuts are enormous, and they came upon the university in a very sudden way," Flanagan said in a Tuesday interview on campus.

The changes demand a rapid transformation, said Flanagan, who revealed a high-level plan this week.

Although the details have yet to be decided, Flanagan plans to merge some of the university's 18 faculties to reduce administrative costs and duplication.

By 2022, he wants to permanently cut $120 million in annual expenses — that's about six per cent of the institution's current $1.9-billion budget.

Post-secondaries can only increase student tuition by an average of seven per cent per year for the next two years, as per provincial government rules.

Demographic bulge of students looming

Some professors will move out of administrative roles to focus solely on teaching and research. While it may trim some program offerings, the university will expand and add others in response to student and employer demand, Flanagan said. More courses will be offered online.

Consultation with students, staff, faculty and the broader community will take place in the summer and fall, and Flanagan said he hopes the university will have a new academic structure by spring 2021.

"The urgency and the need for us to act quickly, I'm certainly feeling it, and that's one of the reasons I'm so engaged right now, even before the start of my term in proposing a plan that I think can really bring the university through a very challenging time," he said.

Bill Flanagan is the incoming president of the University of Alberta. The former dean of law at Queen's University assumes the new post on July 1, 2020. (Peter Evans/CBC News)

A demographic bulge of students are also poised to graduate from Alberta schools in about five years. Flanagan wants to accommodate them.

Funding cuts have prompted the university to eliminate about 1,000 jobs, and those reductions are still underway.

University provost and vice-president academic Steven Dew said administrators have realized for at least a year that business as usual is not an option.

Leaders sought advice from around the world on how to make major changes that could drive down costs without affecting the quality of programs, he said.

"The magnitude of change, the pace of the transition, certainly exceeds that of almost any other institution in the world," he said of the U of A's transformation. "So we are very concerned about our ability to navigate it." 

In the short term, there should be minimal changes to the programs offered, he said.

Students want quality of education to remain

Marc Waddingham, president of the University of Alberta Graduate Students' Association, said he's not concerned about administrative or structural changes as long as the quality of programs is maintained.

Graduate students should have equal access to funding regardless of which faculty they're in, he said.

"It should be noted that this is obviously taking place in an unfortunate context of absolutely unprecedented cuts," he said.

University of Alberta Students' Union president Joel Agarwal said Flanagan's message sounds optimistic, but any changes must improve the quality and accessibility of education.

"Students must be meaningfully consulted on all changes, and administration must be willing to adjust their approach in response to student concerns," he said in a Tuesday email.

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides. (Genevieve Tardif/CBC )

Laurie Chandler, press secretary to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, said Tuesday the government's intent to rein in public funding to Alberta's 26 post-secondary institutions remains unchanged.

"As the MacKinnon panel clearly demonstrates, Alberta's post-secondary system can be more efficient," she said in an email. "It is possible for us to reduce costs and increase access at the same time."

New performanced-based funding rules, which will tie some government funding to schools meeting targets, will now take effect at the end of June, Chandler said.

Also on Tuesday, Opposition advanced education critic David Eggen said the NDP has tallied more than 3,500 proposed job cuts at 16 Alberta post-secondary institutions since the United Conservative Party formed government in April 2019.

The number far exceeds the government's estimate of job losses in the sector in its past two budgets.

Eggen said the deep funding reductions will create a "generational gap" in post-secondary education.

"Students are paying more in tuition but getting less," he said. "Cuts to programs and staffing means less choices and time with educators."