New advanced ed minister ready to go

This week, the Gauntlet had the opportunity to interview recently-appointed Advanced Education and Technology Minister Douglas Horner.

Gauntlet: Overall, what’s your vision for Advanced Education in Alberta?
Douglas Horner: I think there’s a package of things that you’ve got to look at. We started out 10, 13 years ago under the ‘Campus Alberta’ approach and we’ve been successful in a number of areas with regards to that, such as the transferability [of credits] in terms of other jurisdictions. We’ve got a high-quality system in place, but we’ve got a lot of strains on that system, so what I want to see is a system that maintains that high quality level, that reaches out to all Alberta students who want to participate in post-secondary across the province, and does so in an organized fashion so we’re not duplicating and we’re meeting the needs. [Also] that it’s affordable and that it’s something you can be globally be competitive with.

G: Your position recently changed from just Advanced Education Minister to Advanced Education and Technology Minister. What does this entail?
DH: We had a department called Innovation and Finance which included all of the research endowments and the research institutes that the province funds and directs. That includes things like the Alberta Science and Research Authority, the Alberta Research Council and various industry and academic research institutes that are involved in everything from cultural research to nano-technology to clean coal to renewable energy, so that brings all of that into the department. It’s a nice fit because our academic institutions–including the [University of Calgary]–play a huge role in the research component in what we do in the province. Certainly the [University of Alberta], U of C, [University of Lethbridge], and all of our research universities and colleges and institutes are involved in a great deal of research which is tied to industry, which provides the student body an opportunity to see where the industry’s headed and where the science is headed. It gives the students direction as to where the economy may be going as well. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s about: Where is your career going to lead you? I think it’s a nice fit.
Commercialization is the other side of it, commercialization of technology that’s been developed in the province so the business side of it stays in the province and creates the economic community with jobs and the opportunities to spur even more research.

G: What steps. if any are you planning on taking to improve rural involvement in advanced education?
DH: Well, that’s not a stated goal of my mandate, but it is obviously something we’re interested in from the rural development initiative and again, it’s not an rural-urban split thing. We’re talking about providing opportunities around the province in a coordinated approach through the ‘Campus Alberta’ approach. When we look at rural communities outside of Edmonton or Calgary and see post-secondary institutions, they could be technical or vocational institutes, they could be colleges that feed into the universities, they could be any array of different things. All of them can become the anchor tenant–to equate it to a shopping mall–to help attract other industries that feed into that educational component.

G: One idea that came up last year was making Mount Royal College a degree-granting institution. What are your thoughts on this?
DH: I know they’re working through the process and I know they’ve had to rework some of their submissions. I understand they’re somewhat frustrated by the time it’s taking, but I think from what I’ve read–and again, I’m new to this, so I’m learning quickly–becoming that kind of institution doesn’t happen overnight.

Tahere’s not just the government involved, but other institutions and other accreditation agencies; you can’t just pull out a shingle and say: ‘Now we’re going to grant degrees.’ There has to be a process. That’s a protection for the institute, for the students, for all the funding agencies.

G: Last year, your predecessor, Dave Hancock, held a comprehensive series of consultations called A Learning Alberta. What do you plan to do with the conclusions they reached?
DH: In the process [former Advanced Education ministers Denis Herard and Dave Hancock] had been bringing forward a number of ideas and concepts that came out of the consultations–part of that being the affordability framework. My mandate is to build on that–and I stress that because those are the first words on the mandate as they relate to advanced ed–is to build on the foundations of access, affordability and quality. That’s going to be our goal.

G: As far as quality is concerned, it’s a major issue that’s come up with a lot of post-secondary students, especially at institutions like the U of C. Issues such as decaying buildings and large class sizes are near the top of the list. What plans do you have to address these issues?
DH: Obviously when you’re talking about large class sizes, you’re talking about the capital side of the spaces. As an MLA, I said a long time ago when I met with the students’ unions, that we can reduce tuition to very nominal amounts, but you’re still not going to get more students in there because you don’t have enough space. The part we have to address is the space.
Now, the U of C has a capital plan going through the process and there’s a number of projects that have been approved.The rest of the capital plan, you need to do good planning, and you need to do due-diligence and establish that you’re addressing the need that you know is out there. I would like nothing more than to snap my fingers and have it happen tomorrow, but that isn’t going to happen and we have to be realistic in how we proceed with this and how we plan it.
G: Another thing that emerged last year was tying tuition increases to the rate of inflation. Many people view this as an excellent first step, but also believe more needs to be done. What are your thoughts on this?
DH: Well, tuition is only one component of affordability. Tuition is only part of the cost of going to school because a large part of that cost is you’re giving up the ability to earn income while at school.
There’s a whole bunch of other things that come into play: your food, your rent, your gas to come to and from, your vehicle, the very aspect of just being able to sustain yourself while going to school if you’re not living at home. Even if you’re living at home, there are still costs involved.
I’m a parent,. I’ve had two children go through, one continuing to go through post-secondary, and another one on the way. I have a pretty good idea what the costs are.
In terms of the affordability piece, we want to be the most affordable place for Alberta students to get their post-secondary education. How you measure that and how you benchmark it against other jurisdictions, I still need to do a lot of investigation of. Is that the measurement we want to use?
Again, I go back to the mandate letter, which said to build on the initiatives. When we talk about the student loan process, there’re some dumb rules in there. I think we need to address that, but we have to do it in a way that the process is out there. Again, I can’t just snap my fingers. We need to have this process in place.

G: However, that said, are there plans for a tuition reduction in the process?
DH: Well, when I look at the numbers under this new tuition policy, we’ve gotten that part of it, if not reduced, certainly under control for now. That’s not to say there won’t be more done. I’m a firm believer–and this is as a parent and as a student myself, I went to school in Calgary–you should have the expectation that you’re going to make an investment in your career as well; it’s not going to be covered solely by taxpayers . So, there is going to be a component of student contribution to their education and I don’t think that anyone should think that, as Albertans, we’re going to head down that path.
There should be–given our economy and given what we’re doing–space for every Alberta student who wants to take post-secondary, there should be a high quality education available to him in the field that he would like to get into if he’s qualified to get into that, and there should be a way where he can afford to do it.

G: Also on the topic of affordability, a lot of student groups have been advocating for more non-repayable loans, ie. grants and whatnot. Any thoughts on that? Will we see more in the future?
DH: We’ve added a number of scholarships and bursaries and we have probably the most generous remission program in terms of student loans in the country. Those are certainly good bases from which to build. I believe there are ways where we can build to help students so they don’t end up with higher debt loads at the end of it or at least are in a position where they can recover that very quickly.

G: What do you view your role with groups such as students’ unions being?
DH: [They’re] my clients. I view the stakeholders of this department just as I did with agriculture, that we’re here to serve and I’m here to serve. I’m a customer service-oriented type of a person. My clients, first and foremost as an MLA, are my constituents. As a minister, my clients are the students, faculty and taxpayers of Alberta. So when you talk about consultation, students have to be there.

G: What can we expect to see from advanced ed in the new year?
DH: It’s tough, because there’s just so much stuff going on. I think the gist you can see from us is that we’re going to build on those initiatives of affordability, access and quality, but you’re also going to see a strong emphasis from me in bringing people around the table and doing consultation to get feedback from my stakeholders and my clients.

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