Big changes are coming to how Alberta’s post-secondary schools are funded.
Last week, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government announced a shift to a performance-based funding model. As well as previously announced budget cuts, this means an additional chunk of money for schools will be determined by how well they meet certain metrics set by the province such as graduate income and employment rates.
Many students and academics worry about the implications of such a monumental shift and a lack of information on how those metrics will be determined before universities have to cement their budgets in the coming months.
“I do not trust that either the government can give competent direction or that the people who are developing the indicators can competently identify measures that actually measure performance adequately,” University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas told HuffPost Canada.
Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced the changes on Monday, and said each post-secondary school will be able to establish their own priorities, alongside some system-wide targets.
″[Possible indicators] include graduation and completion rates, graduate employment, experiential learning, enrolment both domestic and international, commercialization of [intellectual property], research capacity, quality of teaching and student experience and student satisfaction,” said Nicolaides.
The funding will be scaled. If a school meets 90 per cent of its targets in these areas, it will receive 90 per cent of its funding, Nicolaides said. Most post-secondary schools receive 40 per cent of their funding from the province, with the remainder coming from other sources such as tuition, private donors and corporations.
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The government will implement the new policy in stages, with 15 per cent of its funding tied to the measures starting April 1, and ramping up to the full 40 per cent by 2022-2023.
But Lisa Young, a public policy professor at the University of Calgary, said it’s important to note this funding change comes on top of cuts announced in the fall budget.
“Layered on top of that, are these performance indicators,” Young told HuffPost. “Which are basically not so much a set of incentives to do certain things, but disincentives to avoid certain outcomes and a requirement to report on those specific outcomes.”
Young said she’s not fundamentally opposed to performance-based funding, but there are big risks with tying it to graduate income, as this week’s announcement suggested.
“How are they even supposed to do that when there are no real details?”
“Certainly tying outcomes to income makes everybody nervous, not because they’re afraid that their institution isn’t doing a good job, but because the quality of your education isn’t necessarily tied to the income that you can earn the year after you graduate,” she said.
“I think we want to be really careful that we don’t hold post-secondary institutions accountable for shift in market forces that happen faster than an institution can respond to.”
Emmanaeul Barker of the Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC) that represents students at colleges across the province said it is cautiously optimistic about the changes, and is encouraged by the transparency in how funding is being set.
“We’re interested to see how the metrics develop over time. But [our organization] knows the institutions and the students as well, we’ll have a chance to consult with the government as we have been regarding the actual structure of the metrics themselves,” Barker, ASEC’s government relations and advocacy director, told HuffPost.
While the government has promised to consult with students and schools before budgets are due to be set, critics are also raising the alarm over the speed and expectations of the changes. Post-secondary institutions will have fewer than three months to adapt their budgets and meet the new, yet-to-be-determined metrics before they risk losing funding on April 1.
“Typically around February, March, most institutions have to create a budget and justify it and communicate with all departments, pass it with the Board of Governors and then immediately as soon as that’s done, they have to start working on the next year’s,” Shifrah Gademsetti told HuffPost.
Gademsetti is a sociology student at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She was previously involved in the Council of Alberta University Students from 2016 to 2018, as well as the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University and engaged directly in lobbying the provincial government on behalf of students.
“And so, with this decision is coming now, mid-January, institutions have to go back to the drawing board, essentially, and redo their entire budgetary process,” she said. “But then how are they even supposed to do that when there are no real details?”
Gademsetti said that until now, Alberta’s public funding to universities and colleges was distributed through what is commonly known as the “sedimentary model,” where small decisions are layered on top of each other over many years.
Thomas points to the government’s rushed timeline for overhauling that whole model as evidence that the changes aren’t well thought-out. She said universities are mandated by law to set their budgets at certain times of the year, and this announcement and the fall budget cuts go against their ability to do that.
“That they would go through and cut, say, my institution, by nearly $50 million after the budget was set, suggests they don’t actually respect the legally defined budgeting process at public institutions,” she said in an interview.
Threat to academic freedom
There’s also a likely shift to rely more heavily on the private sector for funding, Thomas said. The amount of private research at universities is even listed as one of the possible metrics the government could use to dole out public funding, which she said would be “catastrophic” to academic freedom.
“When it comes to corporate-sponsored research, the problem is that it harms academic freedom,” she said. “If you’ve got a funder that’s going to tell you how to do a research project, that means that as the experts during the research, you’re not free to actually make the call. So the government asking us to do that kind of research, it doesn’t make sense.”
Ultimately, it’s hard to know what to expect when there are so few details, Thomas said.
“The government is setting this up is that we really want to be able to do it in such a way that accountability rests with the different body than with them,” she said. “That means that somebody’s budget is cut, they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not our fault. It’s your fault, you’re not hitting your targets’.”
Details on the performance-based indicators are expected to be released in the coming months.
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