Provincial government’s arts cuts divisive

By Kalista Sherbaniuk

The Alberta provincial government cut $147 million of funding for post-secondary education. They also recently gave $142.5 million to expand the Schulich School of Engineering. The sums which have been cut and allocated came from different portions of the provincial budget, but the bottom line reflects a contribution to engineering and a detriment to all other faculties. The Alberta government is choosing to encourage some students’ education goals at the disadvantage of others.

The government’s rationale is clear: fund Albertan engineers, around half of whom will contribute to the oil and gas industry, and fund the province. They’re focusing on educating students with academic goals that they view as useful for industry.

Alberta’s minister of enterprise and advanced education Thomas Lukaszuk was quoted in Metro News saying, “We’re looking to make Alberta the engineering powerhouse in Canada because we know this is where the jobs are, we know that this is where the industry is, but most importantly, we know that this is where the talent is.” Lukaszuk’s defence is quite the degrading statement towards non-engineering students ­— he is implying that talent in engineering is more important than talent in other fields, and that our most talented young minds in Alberta are engineers.

The minister of higher education should be concerned with all post-secondary students. His viewpoint undervalues the education of non-engineering students, dismissing the traditional role of academia as the pursuit of higher learning and instead emphasizing higher learning as merely a means to an end of procurement of workers for the oil and gas industry.

However, even taking finances into consideration, this ideology is logically unsound. Many other types of employees apart from engineers are required for the economic viability of the province, even within the oil and gas industry.

If adding the 400 engineering spots that the expansion will create is so essential to industry, then it should be up to the industry to fund those spots completely. Though the oil and gas sector does provide a lot in way of money for expansions or scholarships for certain fields, increased taxation on the industry could make up some of the provincial shortfall.

The University of Calgary and other post-secondary education institutions in the province are suffering overall because of budget cuts. While Schulich, being perceived as able to contribute tangibly to the province, receives additional funding, the faculty of arts has had to cut 200 spots for the 2013–14 school year to “ensure a sustainable funding model.” Part of being sustainable must include the acknowledgement that the Alberta government is now running a deficit for the sixth consecutive year and that historically, health care and education are often subject to the heaviest cuts in times of deficit.

The Progressive Conservatives’s education cuts have been felt elsewhere in the province. Deadlines from the provincial government have led the University of Alberta to cut 20 low enrolment programs in the faculty of arts and 600 spots for science students over two years. Last year, 6,000 high school students applied to universities across the province but were not accepted because of limited space. These budgeting issues have been compounded by Premier Alison Redford’s post-election promise of a 2 per cent increase to post-secondary over 3 years that has instead been the $147 million, 7 per cent net cut this year alone.

Given that the University of Calgary contributes $8 billion annually to the provincial economy, and that the U of A’s impact is 5 per cent of the gross domestic product of the province, it is clear that education as a whole is a good investment. The provincial government is moving away from this investment as well as belief in the value of education.

It is unrealistic to expect post-secondary institutions to be able to provide the same level of education with lower provincial funding. Cutting education by such a high amount will guarantee a decrease in education levels across our province. Even during the Great Depression, funding to the U of A was left untouched.

We need to start questioning the Progressive Conservatives’s motives and overall ability to lead Alberta to a better future.

President of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, Robert Sutherland has called the provincial government’s cuts “unprecedented in the province’s history” in terms of monetary amounts and stated that universities have only started to make the budget cuts required to match the province’s requirements.

Fear of the direction of post-secondary education in Alberta is real. Albertans need to pay attention to genuine concerns that the oil and gas industry’s influence over politics is negatively impacting other sectors of the province, including education. The Alberta government has a responsibility to support its post-secondary students of every academic pursuit.

Leave a comment