How the UCP is restructuring post-secondary education in Alberta

Over many years, post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs) around the world have undergone a transformation toward the corporatization of education. Increasingly, these institutions are seen (and funded) less as providers of public goods (higher education and research) and more as “businesses” that should produce commodities and attract private sector investment.

In keeping with this approach to higher education, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government has, from 2018 to 2022, cut the operating support budget for Alberta’s PSEIs by 18.8%, resulting in a trail of destruction across the province’s universities, colleges, and technical institutes: thousands of employees laid off, increased workloads for remaining staff, teaching contracts cut, academic programs axed and, ultimately, tuition rising beyond the reach of many and growing student indebtedness.

The picture is grim. This domino effect is rooted in the political ideology of the UCP government. Enshrined in the Ministry of Advanced Education’s “Vision 2030 agenda,” the UCP worldview for post-secondary education privileges “industry” needs and the commodification of teaching and research ahead of any benefit to the public interest. The UCP’s funding model for PSEIs dictates which programs will survive, and which will be starved of resources. Under the UCP, politics determines what kinds of knowledge have value, what kinds of education are worthy of government support, and who will be able to access them.

The executives and boards of governors of the PSEIs might have been expected to resist the UCP’s defunding and market-driven restructuring of post-secondary education, but instead, in many cases, they have collaborated. This report explains why, drawing on research into how public members of PSEI boards are appointed, who holds these appointments, and whose voices are underrepresented in decision-making about higher education and research. In this climate of cuts and corporatization, and amid increasingly overt political intervention in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, understanding the impacts of these appointments has never been more urgent. Within the existing legislative framework, public appointees to boards of governors are empowered to subvert and supplant the role of scholars in determining how programs should develop. Governments direct higher education and research priorities via public appointees to the boards as well as the legislative and budgetary means at their disposal.

This report addresses two questions. First, we ask what the agenda and actions of the United Conservative Party government of Alberta mean for higher education and research. Second, we ask how institutional factors explain the sector’s lack of autonomy and ability to resist the corporatization agendas of governments.

This report was published in partnership with the Parkland Institute, you can download and read the full report here.

Author: Laurie Adkin, Mike Lang, Mark Shakespear, David Chen and William Carroll