Mayhem at the ministry

Students may be paying too much tuition.


The Alberta Auditor General annual report on the Alberta government released Tue., Oct. 14, found some post-secondary institutions are not correctly calculating the legislated 30 per cent tuition cap while one college was over 30 per cent for three years with no consequences.


"The department tells us all but one are in compliance," said Merwan Saher, Director of Communication for the Office of the Alberta Auditor General. "To us, we’re an independent party examining it and they’re not in compliance."


Katrina Bluetchen of the Alberta Learning Public Affairs Office emphasized only one institution was not in compliance.


Additionally, the report found calculations should be more timely to allow action if institutions do not comply with the cap. Also, ministry officials pointed out the policy was difficult to calculate.


"You’ve got this policy and you want institutions to comply with it," said Saher. "It’s a really complicated policy to administer and results come out after events. The department doesn’t know if institutions are complying."


According to Bluetchen, the ministry is changing the tuition policy to "ensure any tuition increase is manageable."


"The average [tuition] increase [in Alberta] was three per cent," said Bluetchen. "In some provinces without a tuition cap, it was as high as 30 per cent. The policy is doing its job and will continue doing that."


Another Auditor General recommendation was improving how the ministry measured public satisfaction regarding the affordability of the learning system. It is one of the core measures used to report the ministry’s progress.


This year, 52 per cent of Albertans agreed the learning system was within the means of most Albertans, down from 63 per cent in 2002 and 75 per cent in 2001. The ministry surveyed students, taxpayers and the government.


"It’s seeking to measure statements from too many things," said Saher. "If public satisfaction dropped or increased, it’s hard to tell why. People view affordability from perspective all three [stakeholders] or a narrow one. Or they could be commenting on basic or post-secondary education."


Alberta Learning acknowledges the question doesn’t offer a full picture.


"We’re already looking at better use," said Bluetchen. "It will take some time. Affordability is very subjective."


Related to affordability was the recommendation from the Auditor General to measure the effects of the tuition fee policy and related programs on post-seccondary education affordability. The report found the department should collect more information on effectiveness of its programs. It also recommended the impact of differential tuition on participation should be measured.


As well, when surveying Alberta high school graduates about enrolling in post-secondary education, it defined lower income graduates as having a household income under $40,000 and higher income graduates as having a household income higher than $70,000. The Auditor General found there was no information to support use of either income number.


"If you pick the wrong level, you’re going to get results that may not tell you what you need it to tell you," said Saher.


Bluetchen was unable to comment on why those numbers were selected.


The report also offered critiques of post-secondary institutions. The Auditor General recommend both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta improve their internal control systems. According to the report’s glossary, internal control is "a system designed to provide reasonable assurance that an organization will achieve its goals."


This is the third time the annual report has included this recommendation.


"It’s been flagged before," said U of C Vice-President External Roman Cooney. "We can’t argue with the call. It’s as frustrating for us as it is for the Auditor General. But how much money do we put in that side from the education side?"


This matter concerns the Auditor General’s office because two universities have the same problem.


"Internal controls are absolutely critical," said Saher. "The university is managing other people’s resources. They’re looking after taxpayers’ money and students’ tuition fees. It has to organize itself to ensure money is used as intended."


An example in the report had the Auditor General test six individuals’ access to the Financial Transaction Input system and found two did not require access to perform their duties. Cooney said the university put aside money in last year’s budget to update systems.


"It’s important to put it in a larger context," said Cooney. "If we were able to address all the issues we would take money out of the classroom."


The Alberta Auditor General is independent of the government. It serves to examine government financial statements, operations and practices.


View the report at www.oag.ab. ca/pdf/ar2002-03.pdf.

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