On March 8, International Women’s Day, the Lt. Governor of Alberta read the latest government Throne Speech in the legislature. A small section of the speech addressed post-secondary education, under the overall title of “Diversifying Through Education, Training and Business Development”. The text of that section reads as follows, reformatted into four parts with newsletter commentary:
Throne Speech: “While your government works to diversify our traditional strengths, we will also diversify by helping other sectors of our economy grow. The second bill your government will table before this legislature will be The Growth and Diversification Act. This act will expand existing tax credits, introduce new tax credits, place major resources behind education and training and help make post-secondary education more affordable. We will extend the Capital Investment and Alberta Investor Tax credits to help businesses grow and expand.
Comment: The big economic topic in Alberta since the most recent fall in oil process has been “economic growth and diversification”. It was also the big topic after the Lougheed Conservatives took power in 1971. And, yes, there has been some diversification over the years but as recent events have shown the core of the mostly foreign-owned economy still focuses around ripping and shipping energy resources, most recently from the oilsands. And what do Albertans have to show for it? A well-known oilpatch bumper sticker from the 1980s, recycled in later years, declared, “Please God, give us another oil boom, we promise not to piss it away this time.” Many have pointed out the difference between Alberta’s “rainy day oil fund”, which stands at a mere $4 billion, and Norway’s similar fund which stands at $1 trillion. Why the difference? Because a huge portion of the Alberta profits went into the pockets of foreign owners, never to be seen again. So, yes, diversification is and has been needed but as long as the oil companies run Alberta, not much will really change, nor will said diversification improve the lives of Albertans very much. The government has just announced that its first spring diversification bill will be a smorgasbord of handouts to energy corporations, e.g., grants, loan guarantees, direct equity investments, and royalty tax credits. So foreign oil domination will continue, subsidized by the government. And, in fact, the number one news story these days is that we should throw our support behind the expansion of the U.S.-owned Kidder Morgan Transmountain Pipeline System from Alberta to the BC coast to secure our future. But maybe instead of jumping on another privately-owned “big-score” bandwagon, we should be developing broad discussion on just what kind of economy Alberta needs in order to best serve the interests of everyone.
Throne Speech: “We will also support job creation in digital industries with a new Digital Industries Tax Credit. This act will also create thousands of new spaces in our post-secondary institutions dedicated to technology – an investment that will enable more Albertans to get the education and training they need to get good jobs in this growing sector.
Comment: Like many jurisdictions, Alberta is supporting job creation in digital industries. This is all well and good but it is not a panacea. The digital economy, whatever that means, has brought benefits but those digital benefits have been shared unequally among various populations of the world. The latter has been conceptualized as the “digital divide”. In fact, the digital monopolies themselves are run by some of the richest people in the world, e.g., Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, etc. But, in any case, to try to depend on any one economic policy or move to save the whole economy is a vain hope. The economy is a seamless whole that works together. Rather than jump from the energy economy to the somewhat mysterious “digital economy”, even if that was possible, our vision needs to be much broader in scope. Our central task now is to develop the comprehensive solutions and necessary institutions to create a self-reliant all-sided economy with a modern aim that guarantees the well-being and rights of all.
Throne Speech: “At the same time, we will continue to make post-secondary education costs here more competitive with costs elsewhere. The tuition freeze will be continued, saving students up to $1,500 on a four-year degree. To keep education affordable and to protect the gains we have made on behalf of students and families, any future tuition increase will be capped by law.
Our Comment: The tuition freeze is a good thing. Average student debt in Canada is about $25,000 per student. It is likely there is a correlation between crushing debt load and the rise in student mental he
alth issues. To take it further, the frozen tuition fees could be slowly lowered until they are non-existent. The same could be done with international student fees, which are not frozen, which are about four times as much as domestic fees, and which in fact are just being raised again. Other additional student fees should also be frozen and eliminated, for example, fees for residence students at University of Alberta for both rent and meals have just been raised despite student opposition. Note that in 2017 the Alberta Federation of Labour Convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for free PSE tuition in Alberta. There are many countries around the world which already offer free post-secondary education, including to international students. Why don’t the pundits who extol Canada as one of the best countries in the world or who proclaim the “Alberta Advantage” speak out in favour of that?
Throne Speech: “To make education more accessible and affordable in northwest and central Alberta, colleges in Grande Prairie and Red Deer will begin their path to becoming degree-granting institutions.”
Comment: This affects AU directly. Making other northern and central universities into degree-granting institutions will provide more opportunities for more students, especially from the north, to study onsite, which is a good thing, but it may not be welcomed by AU. Already, there are only a certain number of students available to be divided up amongst all the existing institutions in the north. More degrees may intensify the competition to fill seats. (Note that Calgary-based Alberta College of Art will also soon become degree-granting.)