Minister of Post-Secondary Education Calls For "Discretionary Spending Cuts"

 

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt announced on December 1 that Alberta’s post-secondary educational institutions and school boards must by December 15 provide the government with plans for “discretionary spending cuts”.  The “savings” from such cuts must also be achieved in future years.

 

A letter sent on December 1 to universities and colleges, including Athabasca University, gave examples of “discretionary” cuts that other provincial government departments are currently making and asked the institutions and school boards to consider them.  Among the examples were “hiring restraint, deferring non-essential grants and limiting travel, hosting, advertising, working sessions and conferences that do not directly impact the provision of services and programs to Albertans.”

 

The letter also states that the government plans to continue to freeze compensation of non-bargaining staff “at current levels, without grid movement, until Sept. 20, 2019.”  While this may seem “fair” when applied to everyone, note that MLAs are being frozen at $127,000 a year while others are being frozen at, say, $40,000 a year. In addition, it is well-known that behind closed doors the government has been urging administrators of post-secondary institutions to offer no wage increases to those of us who do bargain, which constitutes blatant interference in the “free” collective bargaining process.

 

Schmidt would not discuss where universities could or should make cuts or how much the government expects to save by this plan. He also dismissed concerns that the plans might result in cuts to important services or programming, giving the usual empty mantra that “students come first”.  Schmidt said, “We’ve made it very clear from the very beginning that they have to put students first and that we will certainly work with them to make sure the cost-control measures that they do put in place really minimize the impact on students.” 

 

The hollowness of Schmidt’s claim that “students come first” is quickly exposed. Cuts to PSE budgets invariably target operating (not capital) budgets which are mainly used to compensate instructors and support staff.  Cutting tutor compensation, for example, by moving more courses into the call centre, will certainly negatively affect students because as is often stated, “Instructor working conditions are student learning conditions.”  Cuts to instructor compensation by changing the conditions of their pay is likely to undermine morale and reduce motivation, for example, to “go the extra mile.”

 

PSEs unfortunately often cave in to government demands to implement “austerity” measures instead of actually standing up for students’ interests. This, in turn, leads to PSE claims of financial distress, such as were made by Athabasca University under the previous president, resulting in decreased funding for the core mission activities of teaching and research.

 

General analysis of various PSE financial statements reveals that other more dubious priorities compete for funds with teaching and research.  These include (1) increased spending on highly paid upper administrators, (2) stockpiling surpluses normally part of net assets that are instead earmarked or internally restricted to specific uses by BoG decisions, and (3) funding expensive capital projects (rather than starting to clear the major backlog of deferred maintenance).

 

Not surprisingly, many people, especially in education, were shocked by the announcement of the cuts to education by a government that purports to be pro-education, pro-healthcare, and pro-labour.  A number have remarked that the move echoes cuts made by the previous Conservative governments, for example, the over 9% cut to post-secondary operating budgets in March 2013 which resulted in lay-offs and program cuts, which clearly harmed students.  Schmidt’s announcement also masks the fact that education in Alberta has long been underfunded because provincial revenues that should have gone into education and other social programs have instead been used to subsidize foreign energy corporations.

CUPE 3911 is greatly disappointed that, like its Conservative predecessors, the current government seems to consider that money committed to education is a cost rather than a wise investment in the future well-being of the people of Alberta. 

 

CUPE 3911 strongly opposes the proposed cuts and calls on Minister Schmidt to withdraw his letters, as well as to stop trying to influence provincial collective bargaining.  The provincial government should increase funding to education rather than make cuts, including by lobbying the federal government to increase funding transfers to the provinces which have declined by about 20% over the years.  CUPE also reminds the minister and the current government that in a modern society, education at all levels is a right, not a privilege, and that any policy that interferes with that right will be opposed.

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