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U.S. consulting firm awarded $3.7-million review of Alberta post-secondary system

A sweeping review of Alberta’s post-secondary education system will scrutinize the viability of schools, root out duplication and recommend how to better prepare students for careers.

First major review in 13 years to look at viability of schools, future needs of province

Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides has chosen a consultant to lead a $3.7-million review of Alberta's post-secondary system. (David Bajer/CBC )

A sweeping review of Alberta's post-secondary education system aims to scrutinize the viability of schools, root out duplication and recommend how to better prepare students for careers.

The Alberta government on Friday announced it has awarded a $3.7-million contract to American consulting firm McKinsey & Company to delve into the province's network of 26 institutions. The firm has an office in Calgary.

It's the most comprehensive look at the sector in about 13 years, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in a Friday interview, and could lead to substantial changes starting in 2021.

"There's a lot of excitement," he said. "We have a lot of great individuals in our post-secondary sector, and I am so confident that by us putting our heads together we can really develop a system that will help lead our province's economic recovery and keep us competitive for the future."

The review was sparked by recommendations from a blue ribbon panel which in 2019 examined Alberta's government spending. The panel, headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, concluded Alberta's post-secondary institutions lacked common goals. The panel said Alberta was spending more money per student than some other provinces, but failed to get a better value for that investment.

A request for proposals issued in March wanted a consultant who will study other post-secondary systems around the world and delve into why relatively fewer Albertans enrol in post-secondary programs compared to other provinces.

By the end of November, Nicolaides wants to see recommendations on how the government should shape the system for future needs.

Although improving efficiency is listed as a goal, Nicolaides said cutting costs isn't driving the work.

Students want input in review

Among the government's goals are to prepare adults with skills employers want, he said. Institutions should offer more work placement opportunities and improve commercialization of their research findings. They need graduates who are good at communication and problem solving for a world that is increasingly automated, he said.

Reviewers will scrutinize Alberta colleges for potential duplication of programs. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The review will also tackle practical challenges, such as the frustration some students experience trying to transfer credits between schools.

Consultations are also part of the review.

Student groups are anxious to be involved. Rowan Ley, president of the Council of Alberta University Students, said Friday he feels cautiously optimistic about the review addressing systemic problems.

Alberta institutions need more seats as a demographic bulge of children approach young adulthood, he said. It's also difficult for students to find jobs that correspond with their studies.

The review shouldn't be used as justification to cut more government funding to post-secondary institutions, he said.

The United Conservative Party government has argued colleges, universities and polytechnics receive too much public funding compared to other provinces, and has pledged to reduce government funding by 20 per cent over its four-year-term.

Christopher Bell, executive director of the Alberta Graduate Provincial Advocacy Council, said he hopes reducing "duplication" ensures students can avoid moving far from home to attend their program of choice.

"The fact that it's so broad and just so big, I think is really exciting," he said.

He's concerned the speedy timeline during the pandemic will make adequate consultation with students difficult.

Schools need funding to be competitive, Opposition says

NDP advanced education critic David Eggen said post-secondary students, employees and administrators are wary of the government's intentions after two consecutive provincial budgets that were brutal for the sector.

Schools with shrinking funding have announced thousands of job cuts.

NDP advanced education critic David Eggen says if Alberta universities, colleges and polytechnics are to be globally competitive, they need adequate funding from government. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)
Some institutions saw their public funding drop as much as 10 per cent this year.

The language in the MacKinnon report and request for proposals suggests the government is looking to close and amalgamate schools, he said.

"They think that there's too many different programs in Alberta, and it sort of telegraphs a suspicion that this UCP government has for the independence and the integrity of universities," he said.

Regional colleges, which exist to serve economic demands in different regions of the province, should be maintained, he said. 

The recommendations in the report are supposed to look as far ahead as 2030.

 

Corrections

  • We initially reported that McKinsey & Company is a Calgary consulting firm. In fact, it is an American firm with a Calgary-based office. 
    Jun 13, 2020 1:45 PM MT

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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