Alberta has long been hindered by a low post-secondary participation rate – something education advocates have struggled to explain. But, while the United Conservative Party’s education agenda does include some investments for skills training, its budget cuts to universities are likely going to make the participation rate problem worse.
In May 2019, the UCP government appointed a blue-ribbon panel that was tasked with making recommendations on how the government could reduce spending to balance the budget. Its final report was released a few months later in August and drew attention to some of the struggles facing post-secondary institutions in the province.
“Since 2015, high-paying energy jobs have become scarce and unemployment has risen, yet the participation rate (for those institutions) remains at 17 per cent,” the report stated. “In most provinces, post-secondary participation rates rise with rising unemployment and fall with a booming economy – not so for Alberta.”
In an address to Albertans on Oct. 23, Premier Jason Kenney amplified that statement, commenting that the province spends roughly $10,000 more than the “large province average” per post-secondary student, yet has low post-secondary participation and completion rates.
“In other words, in program after program, Albertans pay more, but get less,” he continued.
Nor was this the first time the province’s low participation rate has been identified as an issue. It has been routinely mentioned in annual reports from post-secondary institutions across the province, as well as advanced education ministry documents.
For example, a 2008 report from that ministry, published more than 10 years ago, states Alberta’s participation rate “continues to lag behind other provinces — a position that has remained relatively constant over the last decade.”
In part, that poor participation rate may be explained by the fact Alberta attracts young workers from other provinces within the country, as well as internationally. Because the rate is calculated by dividing the number of 18- to 34-year-old students into the population base, that out-of-province population (which has likely already got whatever education they were going to get) could be keeping this number low.
However, the province’s culture may also be playing a role in keeping Albertans out of higher education. For example, Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason recently suggested the low participation rate may be explained by the fact, “Over the past several decades, young Albertans — especially young men — could get good-paying jobs in the oil patch right out of high school.”
Indeed, Emmanauel Barker, director of government relations and advocacy for the Alberta Students’ Executive Council agrees Alberta is unique and “our economy tends to encourage young people to work rather than to be engaged in post-secondary.”
But those good-paying jobs have had costs for the Alberta economy, such as employee shortages in healthcare and other public sector fields.
For example, Joel French, executive director for Public Interest Alberta, pointed out the blue-ribbon panel report highlighted the cost of nurses working overtime – something that could be mitigated by increasing the post-secondary participation rate.
“The reason that nurses have to work so much overtime is because we don’t have enough nurses in the system,” said French. And that overtime problem is only going to increase when the last of the baby boomer generation turns 65 in 2029, putting an enormous strain on ambulances, hospitals and long-term care facilities.
“If you wanted to reduce the amount of overtime they work, there’s a pretty simple solution,” said French. “It’s not one that you can solve overnight. But if you trained more nurses and got more into the system, they wouldn’t have to work those kinds of hours.”
Currently, however, many Alberta post-secondary institutions don’t have enough seats to meet the demand for potential student participation, something the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta mentioned in a position paper released earlier this year. The paper said, in order for the province to bump its participation numbers up to national levels, “Alberta needs to create space for an additional 90,000 students by 2025.”
But the UCP seems more focused on investing in skills training for trade jobs. In a statement to the Calgary Journal, an advanced education ministry spokesperson wrote, “Today, there are young people with no jobs, and jobs that need people with the right skills,” as a result of the 3,000 people retiring from the workforce each year. In an effort to fill those trades gaps in the coming years, the Alberta government is appointing a Skills for Jobs Task Force to “report to government on how to renew apprenticeship education and expand opportunities for students to enter the skilled trades.”
The government has also recently promised $10 million over the next four years for Women Building Futures, a program offering “industry recognized training for women looking to enter the construction, maintenance, transportation and home building industries.”
As for healthcare shortages, the advanced education ministry spokesperson said the government is currently “taking action,” committing $3 million to hire up to 30 new nurse practitioners. The spokesperson also said Alberta Health Services has “recruited more than 60 new physicians in rural and remote communities across the province.”
But that action seems to be very different when it comes to the broader post-secondary education sector. The blue-ribbon panel recommended changes to the way the sector’s institutions are funded, as the current model “doesn’t link funding to the achievement of specific goals or priorities.” And it also recommended an end to the current tuition freeze.
Based on these recommendations, the UCP’s budget, released on Oct. 24, saw many changes for advanced education. Overall, post-secondary institutions across the province will see a 12.5 per cent decrease in funding over the next four years, beginning in this school year.
While these institutions have yet to determine how the cuts will affect their faculty, staff and students, Jessica Revington, president of the students’ union of the University of Calgary, said it’s important university administrators protect “student services and student experience,” listening to the voices of those who sit in post-secondary classrooms.
“It is our job as student leaders to ensure that consultation is in place and that we advocate for undergraduate students not just at the University of Calgary, but across Alberta.”
In addition, the five-year tuition freeze has been lifted, meaning students could see tuition increases of up to seven per cent per year, over the next three years.
Currently, compared to other provinces in the country, Alberta’s tuition fees are quite low. But, Luc Carels, vice-president external for Mount Royal University’s students’ association, said, while it’s too soon to know exactly how it will affect students, a hike in these fees could deter potential students from enrolling, and that could negatively affect the participation rate.
“Generally speaking, the more expensive a product is, the lower the demand for that product is going to be,” he said, adding there’s little reason to think that post-secondary would be any different.
“If the price for that product, which is an education, increases, it’s likely to mean that more students will look at the price of that product and decide against purchasing it — or in this case, going to school.”
External advocacy advisor for the University of Alberta’s students’ union, Robert Nelson, adds these cutbacks will make it difficult for institutions to maintain the current quality of education offered to students.
He said that lower quality could be seen in a variety of ways, including increased class sizes or a change in modes of delivery, such as more online or blended classes.
And with the addition of increased tuition fees, along with limited seat availability across institutions, Nelson said Alberta’s participation rate is unlikely to improve.
“Affordability of post-secondary education has been one of the factors, along with lack of space within the system, that’s contributed to a low participation rate,” he said. “Hiking costs to the degree that the government is, if anything, will have a continued negative impact.”
- By Stephanie Hagenaars