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Tougas wants to see operating costs match capital costs.
photo courtesy Maurice Tougas

A look at Alberta's PSE systems

An interview with the advanced education and technology shadow minister

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Maurice Tougas has been a Liberal MLA since 2004 for the constituency of Edmonton Meadow Lark. Previously Tougas worked as a journalist.

Gauntlet: Currently the average full-time U of C student is paying over $5,300 dollars to go to school. Many critics feel this is too high, what are your views?

Tougas: It's probably a bit high. The government could do something to reduce it somewhat. Students have to remember they are still getting a pretty good value for their education dollar, although five thousand dollars is getting up there on the Canadian scale. We've got one of the highest tuition rates in Canada as I recall. The government should put more money into education and that would allow the universities a lot more opportunities to lower the tuition rates for students.

G: Because of the high cost of tuition many students are forced to take out loans. What are you're thoughts on the Alberta student loans program?

T: Even the minister himself admitted there's a lot of crazy things going on in the Alberta student loan program and I believe they are looking at it again from top to bottom. They should make it as widely available as possible. If you want to take out a loan, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't be able to, and at a rate that makes some sort of sense for students. Because really, what you're doing is investing in your future. And if your future looks brighter and smarter, then Alberta becomes a brighter and smarter place too. So the more money we can make available to students is good for everyone involved.

G: Are Alberta's universities benefiting from the current boom?

T: There is a building boom going on, that's for sure. In a lot of places in Edmonton and Calgary there are cranes and staggering amounts of work going on. I don't think the average student is benefiting any great deal. If you look at pretty much any college or university, particularly the U of C, the existing buildings are in terrible shape. In a lot of places the walls are crumbling and the conditions are just not suitable for a big-time university. But all this money is being poured into the big glass and steel monuments. I don't think the typical Albertan student has seen any great benefit from the boom we're experiencing right now. They've been forgotten because the government's spending so much money on all the bells and whistles that get them international acclaim--at the expense of the average student.

G: Recently the provincial government donated $260 million to the U of C in capital costs for the building of the Energy and Environment building. Should the provincial government now be obligated to assist with operating costs?

T: Absolutely. This is a major problem that is happening a lot in all the cities. These buildings are going up and then it's still going to cost the university extra money to operate these buildings. You can't expect that the university can operate at the same level, with the same amount of money with a brand new building that's going to take very expensive, top-notch employees and all the stuff that goes with it. Base operating grants have to increase as well. You can't just put up a new building and expect everyone to continue at the same rate and pay for it from previously existing dollars.

G: Critics often point to the heavy focus on research in Alberta's three universities as a disadvantage. Do you see it this way?

T: I don't see it so much as a disadvantage. Research is a great thing and a lot of tremendous things come out of it. Businesses come out of it; great scientific discoveries come out of it. It's certainly not a disadvantage. What's happened is that the average student--the arts and science guys who are just there to learn, not necessarily to go out and make their big mark in the world, these are the people who are really being forgotten. There has to be some sort of balance brought back to the situation. Research is a wonderful thing, and we're all for it and great things come from it, but we can't forget the average student who's in a classroom, which may be 20 years out-of-date. There has to be some balance. There has to be more money brought to the base-operating grant so universities can actually upgrade the level of non-research studies.

G: What measures can be taken to ease pressures on student housing?

T: Some, if the things we have to do are allow for more secondary suites and basement suites. Basement suites are a very affordable form of student housing and that would really help out a long way to relieving the housing crunch. We could limit the rent increases we talked about, temporary rent controls that the government rejected for purely their own reasons. In the long run you can look at more and more student housing, but that's a long-term situation that doesn't do you or anybody reading the paper right now any good. We have to look at ways to make the market friendly to students by increasing the number of less expensive suites, and making sure the existing suites that are there aren't priced out of the market. The onus is really on the government and not on the institution.

G: What are the main issues in Alberta post-secondary education system right now?

Traditionally it's funding, and I can certainly understand the pressures that the government is under because for years, post-secondary was badly neglected by Ralph Klein. And what we're seeing now is the chickens have come home to roost. The buildings are in bad shape and the schools are well behind and now they're playing catch up. There is tremendous pressure, everyone has their handout for more money, and it's understandable. The primary problem long-term sustainable funding. This business of the government handing out a million dollars here and a million dollars there is great, but what about the money universities and colleges need just to sustain what they're doing right now? That hasn't kept up, and that's going to be a continuing pressure point for all post-secondary institutions.

G: Where do you want to see post-secondary education go in the future?

T: At some point oil is going to run out in Alberta. And we really have to look ahead to see what the future holds and if we have a knowledge-based economy with some great universities. Universities and colleges will withstand the ups and downs of an economy and the more money we put into education the more money we get back. Post-secondary education is an investment in the future and you cannot possibly go wrong by having world-class universities in Edmonton in Calgary that provide top-quality education for your students. It's win-win for everybody when you put money into post-secondary. But if you keep trying to nickel-and-dime them, you're hurting not just the present Albertans, but the Albertans of the future. It's continuing steady funding. It's really time the universities were given a piece of change that [the government says] "Okay, here is your money, do what you want to do with it," as long as it's keeping with what's going on with the rest of the province as well. It all comes down to money. That's the bottom line with post-secondary, unfortunately, and it's always going to be that way.

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