Advanced education on track

By Sarah Malik

Denis Herard, the Alberta Advanced Education Minister, is on the phone. A former businessman and longtime MLA, he graduated to his new job overseeing post-secondary education in April 2006. Now he wants to talk about his government’s tuition policy and affordability plan to clarify that–despite ongoing criticisms from student representatives–Alberta’s post-secondary system is on track for great things.

Gauntlet: Universities have endured cuts since the early ’80s when the provincial government slashed funding by 25 per cent per student. Will you undo the severe budget cuts that have set up a scenario where students are paying more for less?

Herard: You know, we’re talking about something that was in the last century. The cuts that took place in the early ’90s have been more than replaced. Business plans are made in three year increments and in the last budget we gave Alberta post-secondary education an increase of $353 million.

The very first premise is that we haven’t reviewed the cuts, and that’s false. Alberta PSE has a budget of $2.2 billion. By 2008/09, the budget will be over $2.5 billion.

Minister Hancock managed to make PSE the number one priority in government. Healthcare is always the largest item in terms of spending, but PSE is the area that has received the highest increase over the last couple of years.

G: What changes, if any, have resulted from continuing talks about the tuition policy which was outlined in the A Learning Alberta report earlier this summer?

H: Well, we’ve had consultations throughout the summer with the Council of Alberta University Students and members of university administration, our chairs and presidents as well as faculty associations.

Essentially [the talks] dealt with some of the details of the new tuition policies that freeze tuition. Tuition will no longer be linked to the cost of operating universities, it will simply be the inflation factor that will determine tuition increases. Students won’t have to worry about the relative efficiency of institutions.

G: The tuition policy will not be debated in the legislature, as per Bill 40. There are concerns this means the new Tory policies will not be subject to checks and balances.

H: That’s a bit of a misunderstanding about the way the process works with regard to the decisions that are made in the cabinet. Anytime there is a decision to be made in the cabinet, you can’t just walk in, you have to have consultations with the stakeholders. If [the policy] is in legislation, you’re stuck until legislation changes. It’s not very flexible.

And, what good do debates in legislatures do? [The previous policy] was there for 11 years.

This way, [the new system] allows for continuous improvements. It does not relieve the government of consulting with the stakeholders.

G: Currently, full time-students are paying about $5,000 per school year. Despite the tuition freeze and future increases determined by inflation, many feel tuition is still too high. What are your views, especially considering opening up PSE to young people who want to attend but can’t afford it?

H: Finances should never be a barrier. It seems to me that students only look at the tip of the iceberg and see only the tuition. Below the surface [there are expenses like] the cost of living, food and textbooks. All these things are bigger, overall, than tuition. Tuition is only a third of the overall cost.

We are trying to improve the overall cost of attending post-secondary education. We are trying to re-engineer the entire affordability equation such that money is not a barrier to attending post-secondary.

G: Are there plans for more grants, rather than loans, for students?

H: We are looking at the entire gamut. We have something called the Access to the Future Fund, which currently has $1 billion in it. This is slated to be increased to $3 billion over the next three years. That is going to make a huge difference for the institutions.

Part of the package is also to increase the scholarship fund. Part of that commitment is to move the scholarship fund to $1 billion. Alberta provides more bursaries and scholarships than any other jurisdiction.

We’ve had criticisms about areas like fine arts, so we are working on more bursaries and scholarships for things like fine arts as well.

On the loan side, I am looking at re-engineering the whole thing. There have been a lot of complaints about some of the rules and regulations that determine qualification. All those issues will be looked after in the new affordability framework.

You understand that 60 per cent of student loans are provided by the federal government, the remaining 40 per cent come from the provincial government. Most of the provincial loans get remitted back to students after successful completion of study. We can’t do anything about the 60 per cent that the feds provide.

I am currently working to blend the loan package or maybe even opt-out of the federal one so we can make our own rules. Provide a made-in-Alberta solution. We’re making progress.

The government is able to remit 40 per cent of the student loan. If we are able to create this new partnership, then we should be able to effect the entire amount of the student loan. This will allow us to do a better job managing student debt.

G: What about the quality of Alberta’s post-secondary education? Are there any plans to tackle the quality issue, especially in light of the reports about Calgary’s poor university system that consistently come out from Maclean’s?

H: There are a growing number of universities that take issue with the way that Maclean’s does its review and have told the magazine they will no longer participate. I don’t think Maclean’s is the be all and end all of university assessment. I think if you talk to employers who benefit from the education that is provided at the U of C, you’ll find that they’re very satisfied with the skills that students graduate with.

We’re not hearing any complaints from employers. In fact, just the opposite. We get compliments all the time about how well prepared the students are.

Should we let Maclean’s corner the market, or is it better to listen to those organizations that are essentially the recipients of our students, the employers? And I think there the U of C fares very, very well.

G: Many are concerned the standard is too low for social sciences and the humanities, while better for the sciences. Are there provincial government plans specific to faculties? Will you set minimum standards for universities?

H: Bottom line is that universities are run by some of the best and brightest minds. We have phenomenal faculty and they understand what’s best for academia and research, and I don’t think that government would do universities any kind of good service by setting a bottom line for them. Institutions need to be flexible enough to set good, solid standards for themselves. I don’t think one size fits all.

G: How is Alberta’s economic boom going to be channeled into PSE? Can you give some figures to illustrate this?

H: We have, roughly, a budget of $25 billion in Alberta. $2.2 billion of that goes to post-secondary education, the result of a 19 per cent increase from last year. This is huge and we are moving forward to similar increases in the future. In 2008/09, the budget will be over $2.5 billion.

The best way to invest non-renewable resources and make them renewable is to invest in people. Someone with post-secondary education will typically earn $1 million more in a lifetime than someone who doesn’t have post-secondary. That means the government will collect $100,000 more from a person who has post-secondary than from someone who doesn’t. The government realizes that.

G: What are your goals for Alberta’s post-secondary future?

H: Here we are in the 21st century with the lowest grade 12 graduation rates of any province, which also means that we’ve got the lowest, or next to lowest, transition rates to post-secondary. This is partly because of the hot economy we’re in. Students who have no vision for the future will probably succumb to the hot economy and to the $15 [an hour] jobs, but these are temporary.

One of the things that we need to do is turn on our students much earlier in life. We need to nurture people’s interests and have an army of mentors to help people.

G: When Premier Klein leaves office in 2007, how will PSE be affected by a new premier?

H: That question is indicative of how some people think when they don’t know how policy is determined in the government.

We have 62 people who have been elected from all walks of life across Alberta and we have a policy process that involves every single one of them. The entire caucus makes policy, not just the premier.

The premier is only one voice–yes, a very influential voice–but it’s really the caucus that makes policy decisions with respect to post-secondary education. And, when I look at all the candidates that are running for leadership, I see that all of them hold post-secondary education as a priority.

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