The 2013–14 Alberta provincial budget has slashed $147 million from post-secondary education operational funding, a 6.8 per cent decrease from last year’s budget.
The provincial budget aims to reduce Alberta’s deficit, which, prior to the budget cuts, was projected at $4 billion. The new budget reduces the projected deficit to $2 billion, but has still generated criticism from opposing political parties who feel the ruling Progressive Conservatives have handled the budget irresponsibly and failed on campaign promises.
Government-sponsored programs such as pay support for low-income seniors and provincial courtrooms also received cuts. However, post-secondary education will receive one of the largest cuts this year.
When elected in 2012, Alison Redford’s government promised to increase funding for post-secondary by 2 per cent annually over the next three years, making this budget all the more surprising for universities that planned their budgets on the assumption of greater provincial funding.
Treasury Board and Finance Minister Doug Horner announced the budget in Edmonton on March 7, 2013 with a promise to deliver “responsible change.”
The Summer Temporary Employment Program, a student employment program established in 1972, will be indefinitely suspended, leaving many students without summer jobs.
University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon was dissatisfied with the province’s decision and said there will be serious ramifications to students, faculty and staff as well as decreases in research opportunities.
“The University of Calgary is surprised and extremely disappointed that the Government of Alberta has made an operating budget cut of 6.8 per cent to the post-secondary sector,” said Cannon in a U of C statement.
The specific impacts these cuts will have on the U of C are unknown at this time. The U of C’s executive and leadership team will be reviewing the budget over the next few weeks to determine and develop long-term goals for the U of C.
The provincial government said tuition will not increase and that there will not be any changes to scholarships and bursaries.
Alberta Innovates, a collaborative organization that funds academic projects, will receive a 3.7 per cent decrease in funding from the provincial government.
According to Students’ Union vice-president external and chair of the Council of Alberta University Students Raphael Jacob, these cuts will immediately impact the quality of education in Alberta. He fears faculty downsizing, which could lead to larger class sizes and fewer class choices.
“We cannot speculate how the university will be recouping said costs, but we do know that staff is the single largest budget line that they have, so reduced faculty and staff will result in larger classes and fewer choices of classes,” said Jacob. “It is certainly unfortunate that we are getting such a cut. It was also very shocking because the cut was much worse than we had projected.”
Jacob also said that potential fee increases may occur, adding that students may feel the consequences.
“Our greatest fear is that though tuition will not increase, fees are wholly unregulated and that all institutions will raise fees to recoup those losses,” said Jacob.
U of C economics professor Robert Mansell said the deficit was not a surprise. However, the cuts to advanced education were unanticipated.
“I wasn’t surprised in that we knew there was a big problem. I was a bit surprised about the cut to advanced education,” said Mansell. “My assumption is the U of C was planning on a 2 per cent increase that had been promised before, so this is quite a swing and I imagine that they are looking at all of the available options.”
There will be a $282 million investment by the provincial government over the next three years to improve infrastructure at post-secondary institutions, supporting five construction projects across the province, including the expansion of the Schulich School of Engineering at the U of C.
“On the one hand we certainly need infrastructure and maintenance. We need places to go study and do research in, so I am grateful that money is being spent on infrastructure, but it is still unfortunate that we have received such a significant cut,” said Jacob.
Faculty of arts dean Richard Sigurdson said that each faculty will have to outline how to maintain a positive student experience at the U of C.
“The university will have to make some decisions about how this will be dealt with internally, externally and what kind of distribution between faculties is needed,” said Sigurdson. “Every faculty does face its own unique circumstances in this situation. There is no question that each faculty is going to have to work hard to ensure that students receive what they expect, that they can graduate on time and be in the classes they need and want to take. We need to ensure that we put students first and that the student experience is not harmed or diminished.”
A leaked email found by Alberta NDP Enterprise and Advanced Education critic Rachel Notley sent to the faculty of education at the University of Alberta states that certain departments must prepare for 20 per cent cuts. Whether this will also happen at the U of C is unknown at this time.
“There is a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of students are unsure how this will all play out, but despite the budget, there is still a lot of work to do and it’s not all doom and gloom necessarily,” said Jacob.
Fifth-year astrophysics student Russell Shanahan said that this budget cut will likely lead to teaching staff and faculty downsizing.
“It’s stupid because [this cut] will probably lead to our teachers and researchers getting cut and students will just want to go to other places for school,” said Shanahan. “We need better teachers, not dumb renovations to MacHall. Our teachers need to be paid so that they actually care about their jobs and care about teaching us.”
Shanahan also said that students’ ability to enter graduate school may also be impacted.
“I am about to apply to grad school and if the funding is cut to grad programs, that means I will have a tough time getting in,” said Shanahan.
The U of C will be holding two townhall meetings to discuss the budget cuts with students, faculty and staff on March 21 at 2:30 p.m. in Science Theatres 135 and on March 27 at 2 p.m. in the Dining Centre Blue Room.