Province reviews universities’ funding

By Carina Solda

In March of this year, Alberta Learning Minister Lyle Oberg established a committee of Members of Legislative Assembly and private citizens whose task was to review the Alberta Government’s hand in funding post-secondary institutions. The primary goal of this committee was to make recommendations for improving the existing manner in which funds are distributed, with a direct focus on accessibility and institutional accountability.

The committee consulted with a number of stakeholders, post-secondary institutions, student associations and government departments in order to obtain a broad range of opinion concerning whether or not the current funding methods are aiding institutions, creating accessibility and ensuring accountability to taxpayers and students.

A general concern of the committee is that the current method of funding does not accommodate the incidence of enrolment increases.

"The vast majority of funding is through base grants, the Access Fund and the Performance Fund… as well, a small percentage comes from research funding," stated Medicine Hat MLA and committee chair Rob Renner.

The Access Fund is intended to accommodate student enrolment, yet there was notable concern that the fund does not support enrolment increases. There was also speculation that the fund is somewhat biased because funding is only targeted at specific programs.

"The Students’ Union does not support envelope funding," said University of Calgary SU President Toby White. "Improvements to base funding [may be a better solution than relying on envelopes]."

The committee generally supported the Performance Fund, yet unanimously agreed some modifications need to be made to accommodate the individual nature of each institution. Each institution is evaluated according to a number of Key Performance Indicators. It was suggested by a number of institutions that they should be able to suggest some of the performance indicators by which they are to be evaluated.

Another concern of the committee was the issue of predictability. As the government allocates more and more funding through envelopes rather than base funding, funding becomes less predictable. According to Renner, funding is directly correlated with the number of students enrolled. "Institutions advise the government of the number of students that have enrolled, and the government forwards dollars accordingly," he said.

However, post-secondary institutions are not able to accurately determine student enrolment and as a result, the level of funding received is unpredictable. Renner believes there are a number of factors that affect student enrolment that post-secondary institutions have little, if any control over.

"The economy has an effect on institutional enrolment, as prospective students may defer education and go out into the workforce," said Renner.

Due to the issues of inadequate funding methods and lack of predictability, it was suggested that a plan be put into effect whereby funding would be determined on the basis of an enrolment weighted formula.

An enrolment weighted formula would ensure funds are distributed on the basis of enrolment, yet at the same time, take into consideration different program costs.

"A base plan would need to be put into place which would ensure predictability," says Renner. "[It] would also have to acknowledge the need for funding through some formula which would determine an increase or decrease of enrolment."

White agreed that the possible implementation of an enrolment weighted formula would be beneficial to post-secondary institutions as it would ensure a more reliable source of funding and a greater degree of predictability.

"[The weighted formula takes into account] the nature of the programs that are offered in an institution, and the amount of money that is needed to run them," said White. "[We need] a formula that is not too complex, such that universities can look at their own figures and statistics, and be able to predict how much money they are going to have."

The committee was to submit recommendations to the Minister of Learning by August 2000. However, there has been a delay as details of the report are still being finalized. Renner anticipates Oberg will see the report in early October.

Recommendations will still be given consideration in future budgeting processes when Alberta Learning’s 2000-2004 business plan is being developed.

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