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University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan knew that provincial belt-tightening goals meant another cut to the institution’s funding this year. But he was hoping that the provincial government would want to temper the number based on what he calls the university’s “heroic” efforts to reduce administrative costs.

On Thursday, the Alberta budget was released and Mr. Flanagan learned that the university’s operating funding from the province will in fact be cut by more than $60-million for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. This is on top of cuts over the past two years and was more than university officials expected. It also represented a significant portion of the total $135-million in cuts to operational funding for all Alberta postsecondary institutions this year.

“We recognize the challenging financial circumstance of the province. And we recognize we have a role to play,” Mr. Flanagan said on Friday.

“But to require the University of Alberta to shoulder almost one-half of the required provincial savings is unreasonable,” he added, noting that the university is home to about a quarter of Alberta’s postsecondary students.

The Edmonton university might have borne a disproportionate share of funding cuts, but the pain is being felt in many parts of the province. In October, 2019, the United Conservative government announced plans to reduce funding to postsecondary institutions over four years. The province is now headed into a third year of a push to have those institutions reduce their reliance on government grants, and become more focused on “self-supporting alternative approaches.”

Provincial funding for postsecondary institutions will have declined by 11.8 per cent from the UCP’s first budget in 2019. Because the department’s budget is funded through a combination of government grants and student tuition, overall spending will have dropped by 7.9 per cent.

Even if this year’s funding cuts were a part of the plan, critics argue that many of the moves are counterproductive and short-sighted. This is a government that says it’s focused on recovery and growth for a struggling Alberta economy – especially as the province tries to claw its way out of the mess created by the pandemic.

Research at universities and colleges is helping in the diversification of the economy, and the development of low-carbon technologies that will help the province improve its environmental brand.

“If you could assess what’s the most effective tool you have for to help with economic recovery and the retention of young people in the province, it’s our postsecondaries,” NDP critic David Eggen said.

The University of Calgary touted its contributions to the local economy in a report earlier this month, noting that it helps to generate billions of dollars for the Alberta economy and “great research universities help local economies grow and diversify.” Still, the university said Thursday that the province will reduce its operational funding by $25-million in 2021-2022.

In a Facebook live chat on Thursday, Jason Kenney said postsecondary education is a significant part of the Alberta government’s spending problem. The province is rapidly increasing its debt load, and faces a deficit of more than $18-billion this year. The Alberta Premier said “we spend more than any other provincial government by a country mile, right across the board,” but especially on a per-student basis at postsecondary institutions.

“We’re challenging the university administrators to learn from high-quality public universities in the rest of Canada about how to operate more efficiently, because otherwise we’re going to have to raise your taxes, to pay for that, and that would kill jobs at the worst possible time.”

However, the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta said Friday that the newest cuts could transfer more financial responsibility onto the backs of students – in the form of higher tuition and fees – and will likely lead to further layoffs and decreased programming.

Like elsewhere in Canada, Alberta postsecondary institutions have suffered financially as a result of the pandemic, including a drop in important revenue streams such as international student enrolment. This week, Ontario universities requested an additional half-a-billion dollars to deal with these financial pressures. But the Alberta council noted that the provincial government has not provided any COVID-19 related funding to institutions to address these impacts.

The postsecondary issue is complicated by other matters. Universities are pushing for the government to remove some of the oversight burdens that make it harder to expand revenue sources. And looming on the horizon is the province’s push to implement other controversial changes, including a performance-based funding model.

On Friday, the province’s department of Advanced Education said the grant reductions vary by postsecondary institution in an attempt to align funding with similar institutions in Alberta and in other provinces.

“We recognize that this will be a difficult time for the University of Alberta, but we are working together to address its concerns on red tape, and help them find efficiencies,” said spokeswoman Taylor Hides.

Finance Minister Travis Toews said on budget day that Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides will be meeting with postsecondary institutions in the weeks ahead to discuss the implementation of performance-based funding models. The government has previously said funding would be based on factors including graduation rates, employment and income.

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