By Chris Adams
Since the provincial government announced its budget in March, institutions across Alberta have struggled to solve budget crises following a significant funding shortfall. In total, $147.3 million in funding was cut by the provincial government earlier this year, leaving post-secondary schools with 7.6 per cent less funding than expected.
Several organizations affiliated with faculty associations and student unions across the province have lobbied against the cuts since they were first announced. Members of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations first sensed there would be a problem with the provincial government’s budget in January of this year.
“It became clear that there was going to be a serious change in the government’s attitude toward universities when Thomas Lukaszuk was appointed minister of advanced education,” CAFA president Robert Sutherland said. “No one imagined the magnitude of the budget cuts would be 7.6 per cent. Within large institutions, a budget cut of five per cent is considered devastating. This government tried extremely hard to create a crisis in the system.”
The University of Alberta is being forced to cut a total of $86 million from its operating budget over the next two years. The U of A has responded by raising academic averages for entrance, retiring faculty and cutting enrolment to certain programs.
“We had to go through voluntary severance. A lot of students saw their favourite professors leave. We’ve had to cut enrolment spots and course availability has gone down,” said U of A Students’ Union vice-president external Adam Woods. “It’s incredibly frustrating when a student is trying to graduate and they can’t find the course they’re required to take and have to quite literally delay their degree by a whole semester or a whole year.”
In response to the cuts, the U of A’s faculty of science, consisting of 6,400 undergraduate students, will eliminate 300 enrolment spots per year until 2015–2016. This decrease will result in a 15 per cent decline in the faculty’s total enrolment. Twenty-six faculty positions have also been cut and will not be replaced.
“The biggest thing for us wasn’t so much that the cuts hurt. Because the cuts hurt. It’s that we didn’t know that they were coming. We couldn’t prepare for them,” Woods said.
But tuition at the U of A has not increased in response.
“I think the most important piece here is that temporarily, the government has held tuition constant,” Sutherland said. “So the immediate costs that students are seeing are reductions in course offerings and in the diversity of programs available to them both at the graduate and undergraduate level.”
The University of Lethbridge had its budget reduced by $11.8 million following the cuts. Along with suspending its German and management information systems programs, the U of L has ‘retired’ 34 faculty members. Mandatory non-instructional fees have risen from $12.75 to $37.5 per class, an increase of 300 per cent.
“The U of L was hit much harder by these cuts than most other institutions. We don’t have near as much funding per capita as other [comprehensive research institutions] and our entire graduate program is sustained entirely through our operating budget,” U of L Students’ Union vice-president external Sean Glydon said. “If next year’s budget brings with it another deficit, it could result in massive program cuts that could knock the U of L back decades.”
Non-research focused institutions have also been hit hard. In Edmonton, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology lost 45 of 1,100 faculty members and has increased class sizes as a result.
“We were able to handle it because we’re a large institution,” said NAIT academic staff association president Doug Short. “Smaller ones, like Lakeland College, only have about 100 faculty. So when they get a cut even of 10 — and I think their cuts were anywhere from 20–30 — that’s pretty dramatic.”
Some smaller schools have also had to cut distance education programs, which are typically more costly to operate.
The only institutions in the province that have not seen reduced funding are the four private religious colleges.
On Nov. 2, Lukaszuk announced that Alberta’s post-secondary institutions would receive $50 million in additional funding. The money will be divided between the 20 post secondary institutions whose funding was cut, with the U of A receiving the greatest portion at $14.4 million.
Despite the fact that this $50 million only pays back a fraction of what was cut in March, Woods, who is also a representative for the Council of Alberta University Students, said he is optimistic about the potential for further funding increases.
“The new funding is a step in the right direction. It’s still not mitigating all the damage that has been caused by the cuts, but it is helping to soften the blow a little bit,” Woods said. “We’re optimistic that the government will continue investing in post