Some Alberta post-secondary institutions left relatively unscathed while U of A funds slashed, new data shows

A handful of Alberta post-secondary institutions have been forced to absorb massive public funding cuts while others have been mostly spared, new government data show.

Freedom of information request confirms University of Alberta hit hardest by government cuts

University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan says administrative efficiencies, bulk purchasing and land sales will only save so much money as the government cuts the school's funding. He says the province needs to invest in expanding the U of A's enrolment. (Peter Evans/CBC News)

A handful of Alberta post-secondary institutions have been forced to absorb massive public funding cuts while others have been mostly spared, new government data show.

While the University of Alberta had its provincial base operating funding slashed by nearly 19 per cent during the past two years and the University of Calgary 12 per cent, five private universities, MacEwan University and Lakeland College absorbed more modest cuts of about two per cent, according to data CBC obtained by a freedom of information request.

"Obviously it's a matter of concern," said Bill Flanagan, University of Alberta president and vice-chancellor.

He's spearheading major restructuring and cost-containment measures at the university to absorb the $113-million hit to the university's base funding during the past two years.

"There's no university in the province more important than the U of A to thinking creatively about what the economy of tomorrow will be for Alberta and restarting the economy," Flanagan said.

Following the spring provincial budget, Flanagan said the university was asked to shoulder about half of the province's 6.2 per cent funding cut to post-secondary institutions this year. Flanagan says that's a disproportionate blow for the school that enrols about a quarter of Alberta post-secondary students.

Last spring, the provincial government would not release funding amounts to individual schools. CBC received three years of base operating grant funding amounts for Alberta's 26 post-secondary institutions by filing a freedom of information request in April to the advanced education ministry.

The figures confirm that the University of Alberta has been hit the hardest, with 44 per cent of the $257-million total cut coming out of its coffers. It's also anticipating another $53-million cut next year.

Grande Prairie Regional College, Red Deer College and Fort McMurray's Keyano College have all lost at least 14 per cent of their public funding during the past two years.

Keyano and Grande Prairie declined to comment on the figures, and Red Deer College referred comment to COPPOA, the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta.

The timing couldn't be worse for Grande Prairie and Red Deer, which are both transitioning to become polytechnic institutes, said NDP advanced education critic David Eggen.

He also fears job losses stemming from these cuts will have a disproportionate economic impact on these smaller cities.

COPPOA executive director Bill Werry said post-secondaries have approached the government for explanations about why the funding cuts are so disparate.

The global cuts to the sector are no surprise. Since it released its blue ribbon panel report on Alberta's spending in 2019, the United Conservative Party government has signalled it intends to bring per-student spending on advanced education in line with other large Canadian provinces by cutting funding over four years.

What institutions don't understand is who the government cut, or didn't, Werry said.

In an email, Taylor Hides, press secretary to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, said the reductions were based on funding amounts given to similar institutions in other provinces, within a cap to prevent reductions that were too large. They also looked at historical funding, expenses, programs, research activity and enrolment, she said.

"It is expected that once this baseline is achieved, investment into the system will be more equitably distributed," she said.

Nicolaides declined interview requests earlier this month.

Tension between schools

Werry said the uneven choices are causing tension between some schools.

He said the lopsided cuts show why Alberta post-secondary institutions need a funding formula.

Establishing such a formula is an objective of the government's Alberta 2030 plan for the sector.

Hides said the formula is "under development," but did not provide a timeline.

The Alberta 2030 plan also says the province needs to bolster student grants to keep post-secondary education accessible.

Some students are going to need extra financial help as institutions turn to tuition to make up the difference in their revenues.

The universities of Alberta and Calgary and Lethbridge College have all applied to the government to instate "exceptional" tuition increases for programs like medicine and engineering in fall 2022.

Critics of the cuts, including student, faculty, administration and staff groups, say these effects of funding changes are all for the worse.

They threaten accessibility, the quality of education and research, schools' international reputations and rankings, their ability to attract partnerships and Alberta's ability to retain its most talented young adults.

Critics are also troubled by a demographic bulge of school-aged children in Alberta careening toward young adulthood while post-secondary seats remain static and admission requirements rise.

Rowan Ley, president of the University of Alberta Students' Union, says students who are already paying more tuition have had more trouble getting academic advice or mental health services. Technical workers were laid off just as the pandemic forced classes online, leading to major problems, he said.

Kevin Kane, a U of A microbiologist who serves as president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, says the budget slashes are not only unreasonably rapid, they are antithetical to the government's stated economic development goals.

Instead of building partnerships with other institutions and private industry, the cuts are prompting schools to withdraw from collaborations, damaging relationships, he says.

"You can't help but at least contemplate that there are political reasons for some of the cuts."


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.