Moves to Destroy Alberta's System of Higher Education

Fighting for the Future of Alberta's Universities, Colleges and Technical Institutions

Rally against Kenney government cuts to education funding at the University of Calgary, November 21, 2019.

Against the setting of vicious budget cuts to higher education by the United Conservative Party (UCP), many Alberta universities are engaging in comprehensive downsizing. Details differ across institutions but proposals and policies include raising tuition fees, merging faculties, cutting programs, deleting courses, firing staff, expanding class size, increasing online courses, closing libraries, demolishing residences and so on.

These anti-social changes will negatively impact the education of future generations of Albertans, threaten the livelihood of the many people employed in and around the post-secondary education (PSE) sector, and undermine the academic research upon which the economic, social, and cultural future of the province depends. The University of Alberta's new president shamelessly congratulated a U of A researcher for sharing a Nobel prize in virology, just after announcing plans for massive layoffs at the university.

Specifically, the Kenney government announced it will slash PSE funding for the current financial year by five per cent, with further cuts of five per cent projected for each of the following three years. Those cuts, taking inflation into account, mean that 21 of Alberta's post-secondary institutions will lose one-quarter to one-third of their public funding over the four years, an unprecedented amount.

Strange to say, not a single post-secondary institution in Alberta has launched a fight against these damaging cuts. Instead, all administrative responses are essentially "Yes, Master Kenney, we'll just have to do more with less," as if the cuts were pre-ordained instead of the result of conscious anti-social, anti-education UCP policy decisions. Meanwhile the UCP government, which says it "must" cut PSE, is throwing billions of so-called job-creating dollars in handouts and tax cuts at energy companies such as Shell and Suncor that in turn are shutting down their projects and firing thousands of their workers.

While the PSE cuts and lack of institutional resistance are very harmful in and of themselves there is also the very important issue of how the compliant institutions are specifically deciding the details of their "restructuring." Many staff, students, and support workers have publicly complained about the outrageous manner in which upper administrations are shutting them and their collective organizations out of any meaningful democratic involvement in these decisions. Decisions are simply taken arbitrarily by handpicked, closed-door committees, then inflicted on the masses. Meaningful public engagement is non-existent. Instead sham consultations are held where pre-determined agendas are railroaded through. Only those at the top have actual input into decisions; everyone else is simply to rubber stamp them.

It is very clear to many that what is going on in higher education is totally bogus. Albertans have had decades of experience with Con-initiated fake consultations. The pattern is familiar. Decisions are made in advance; committees of those who are likely to agree with the decisions are handpicked; a few "town halls" with predetermined agendas and strict speaking rules at a handful of microphones are held as window-dressing; input contradicting the predetermined decisions is ignored; and the "consultation" winds up with those in power announcing with great fanfare that 1) they consulted, and, 2) everyone in Alberta agreed with their predetermined conclusions. Surprise, surprise.

Of course, the phony processes in the PSE sector are facilitated by the fact that on August 19, 2019, the UCP government replaced eleven sitting board of governors' chairs and 32 other board members of post-secondary institutions with their own hand-picked appointees. Many sitting board members had not finished their terms. Many newly appointed chairs are energy executives (e.g., Nancy Laird, a director of Trinidad Drilling and a former Encana and PanCanadian Energy executive is Athabasca University's new board chair). Contrary to the Minister of Advanced Education's limp denials, the UCP appointments were very partisan and a direct attack on the foundational principle of university autonomy.

The lack of real consultation over the current funding cuts is the continuation of a long history of the deterioration of so-called collegial governance in the PSE sector. At Canadian universities, the main arenas for policy consultation are meetings of the General Faculty Council (GFC) and the Board of Governors (BoG). The GFC, sometimes called the Senate, supposedly has the last word on academic matters and the BoG has the last word on financial and administrative matters. Actual policy setting is left to the BoG, a small body usually composed of a majority of outside businesspeople (euphemistically called 'public members') and the president, plus an additional minority of academics, staff reps, and student representatives added for show.

This bicameral GFC-BoG approach to collegial governance is a much-criticized model. More and more it is the BoG, dominated by political appointees from the corporate sector, which makes all the important decisions. Various manoeuvres are used, for example, claiming that a clearly academic decision is really financial. Another trick is to control GFC-BoG meetings with bureaucratic rules that, for example, keep certain items off the agenda, railroad through a "consent agenda," and rule people out of order if what they say threatens the BoG agenda. This is facilitated by the fact that the university president chairs the meetings and makes the final ruling on all such matters. Finally, there is also the lurking presence of certain wealthy private donors who can use their financial leverage and connections to exert backroom influence on university decisions.

Other models of university governance exist. At the University of Cambridge in Britain, for example, the official governing body, known as Regent House, consists of academic and academic-related staff of the University's colleges and departments, numbering over 3,000. A similar model is in place at Oxford University, where the Congregation, as it is called, numbers about 5,500 members of academic and administrative staff. This is said to be the sovereign body of the university. On March 6, 2018, university lecturers, striking to defend pension rights, were denied the chance to vote in the Congregation meeting and voted outside.

Consultation is generally defined as "an exchange of views." However, just exchanging views is not enough. If, in the final analysis, the subsequent decisions are based on the views of only one party then the consultation is phony. Genuine consultation must begin with the participation of everyone in setting the agenda. Setting the agenda is key. The discussion of an agenda preset by those in power is not consultation because a preset agenda ensures that what is discussed will only be of concern to the party setting the agenda. Other contending perspectives are excluded from the get-go.

The first genuine consultations at the Alberta post-secondary institutions should have focused on what should be their responses to the UCP cuts. As noted, there was zero public discussion of this. Upper administrators from the post-secondary institutions fell over each other trying to be the first to pledge their loyalty to the UCP austerity program. One wonders why; perhaps it is the fact that post-secondary institutions' BoGs are controlled by the corporate sector. Or perhaps it was believed that those who caved in first would receive more favours from the UCP. No matter, without consultation all the post-secondary institutions made the arbitrary decision to accept the cuts without a whimper and then focused on figuring out who and what to eliminate from their institutions to accommodate them.

The current situation at post-secondary institutions is problematic but there is still time to build resistance. We must end phony consultations, secret meetings, arbitrary decisions, hand-picked committees, meaningless online input, and the shutting out of unions and associations. We must expose misleading messaging about so-called engagement, inclusion, and listening, and the diversionary warnings about "the need to act quickly." With meaningful public engagement, all affected can have a say to ensure that decisions reflect the broad interests of all university people impacted, as well as the interests of the larger society.

It is not too late to fight for our post-secondary institutions. Working together, faculty, staff and students and their organizations can still initiate and build a powerful movement for a sustained democratic exchange of ideas and follow-up actions. Collective action with analysis is what will counter the UCP's vicious cuts and create a positive future for the post-secondary institutions moving forward.

(Photos: TML, AUPE)

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 38 - October 10, 2020

Article Link:
Moves to Destroy Alberta's System of Higher Education: Fighting for the Future of Alberta's Universities, Colleges and Technical Institutions - Dougal MacDonald


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