New performance-based post-secondary funding model elicits mixed reactions

Alberta’s post-secondary institutions say they will work with the provincial government as it transitions to a performance-based funding model, but students worry the changes will lead to more cuts.

Institutions say they will work with government, students worry more cuts coming

Edmonton's NorQuest College, which has more than 19,000 students, says it focuses on workforce-relevant programs. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Alberta's post-secondary institutions say they will work with the provincial government as it transitions to a performance-based funding model, but students worry the changes will lead to more cuts.

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced on Monday that, starting April 1, Alberta will use a performance-based model to determine a portion of funding for post-secondary institutions.

The performance measures are still being discussed, but could include graduate employment rates and salaries, sponsored research revenue, and enrolment.

The amount of funding tied to performance measures will begin at 15 per cent of operational budgets for 2020-21, the government said in a news release, and will gradually increase to a maximum of 40 per cent by 2022-23.

The new model aligns well with NorQuest College's own goals, said interim president Joan Hertz. 

"We have been looking at the economic impact of our institution and whether our graduates are in a better place financially in their careers," Hertz said.

"Each institution has its own value proposition in Alberta, and we see ours as trying to prepare that entry level workforce and trying to make sure that if we're preparing them, that it is in fact what the employers need."

NorQuest will emphasize the importance of helping students achieve their goals during consultations with the province, she said. 

"To us, as long as the outcomes are tying back to what the needs are of our students, I think it'll work well."

Students fear more cuts

Performance-based funding could have unintended consequences, said Bridget Stirling, a University of Alberta PhD student and Edmonton Public Schools trustee.

She worries the new model discounts the importance of gaining knowledge by prioritizing employment and salaries. 

"It's a lens on university education that says universities are just one more kind of vocational or skills based education," Stirling told CBC in an interview. 

"They're places that serve our intellectual curiosity, that build the range of human knowledge and understanding of our world."

Departments that don't receive industry funding to conduct research may be particularly at risk, said Stirling. 

"When you lose some of those areas, you also lose the knowledge and research that they were generating, which is a huge loss to us as a community."

Alberta's post-secondary institutions are already grappling with the cuts introduced in the provincial budget, said Sadiya Nazir, Council of Alberta University Students chair. 

"It is currently unclear whether funding will remain in the post-secondary education system or be allocated elsewhere if an institution does not meet their minimum performance-based funding targets," Nazir said in a statement. 

"The latter would ultimately translate to an additional cut to post-secondary in Alberta."

She called on the province to ensure that decisions are evidence-based, and that the process to determine the measures is transparent. 

"University students fear this punitive funding model could be detrimental to their education if metrics are not equitable," said Nazir.

Improvements not guaranteed

The Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA), which represents the academic staff associations from five Alberta universities, said the new model was concerning.

"Accountability and effective utilization of taxpayer dollars are appropriate; however, research demonstrates that performance funding does not influence the ultimate outcomes that governments want to achieve," CAFA said in a news release. 

A similar funding model was introduced in Alberta as a pilot project in 1997 and failed to yield results, said CAFA.

"This pilot program did not produce the meaningful improvements it promised, and was quietly not renewed."

Members are hoping for meaningful consultations with the advanced education minister, said the confederation.