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Universities in Alberta say the province’s performance-based funding model should be delayed or at the very least modified to account for the significant pandemic-related disruptions to postsecondary education and the job market.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party intends to overhaul how it funds postsecondary institutions, tying provincial money to a school’s performance in categories that could include enrolment, academic performance and postgraduation job placement. The switch to performance-based funding was part of the party’s platform in last year’s provincial election.

The system was set to take effect in the current academic year, but the government delayed that plan by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The province intends to press ahead with the switch and expects it to be in place for the 2021-22 academic year.

University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan, who took over the job during the summer, said the government should consider whether it makes sense to make that switch in the middle of a pandemic, which is expected to continue having a significant impact on postsecondary institutions well into next year, if not longer.

He noted that the school is still handling recent provincial funding cuts, decreases in other revenue due to the pandemic and is also awaiting the results of a government review of the postsecondary sector.

“We’re dealing with a massive restructuring, we’re dealing with a sector review, and we’re dealing with COVID,” Dr. Flanagan said in a recent interview.

“There is a lot on the go, so I think a pause on that might be appropriate, just given the scale of all of the challenges facing both the postsecondary sector and the province.”

Ontario was set to implement a similar system this year but also temporarily shelved the plan.

Under the Alberta plan, performance would be used to determine 15 per cent of provincial funding in the first year of its implementation, increasing to 40 per cent by the third year.

The government has not released precisely how it will measure that performance, or what factors it will consider, but has said performance targets will vary between schools.

Performance-based funding has faced criticism in Alberta and Ontario, with political parties, faculty associations and other opponents arguing that the policy is ineffective and could end up punishing schools for factors beyond their control.

Tim Rahilly, the president of Mount Royal University in Calgary, said it would make sense to further delay the planned change.

“Given everything we’re dealing with, it would be certainly my preference that they delay," he said.

“We want to work with the province and we want taxpayers to see that we’re responsible institutions and that we’re very focused on outcomes. I think it’s just particularly difficult to do that, given everything else that is happening right now.”

Dr. Rahilly said that if the province sticks to its plan to implement performance-based funding next year, the system needs to be able to account for the effects of the pandemic.

The province’s Advanced Education Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, said he has no plans to delay the switch to performance-based funding, and he argued that the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic only make the policy more critical.

“We have an economic crisis on our hands that is resulting in the highest youth unemployment rate that we’ve seen in decades, and we need to take steps now urgently and double down on all efforts to help improve the skills of our students and help set them up for success,” he said.

“Making sure students are ready to face those challenges is something that can’t wait.”

Still, Mr. Nicolaides said the government recognizes the need to ensure that the system is able to respond to how the pandemic has affected postsecondary institutions. He said the year delay will help determine how best to take that reality into account.

“The starting point may be quite different postpandemic than prepandemic," he said "We don’t want to take metrics and scores on employability, research activity or whatever it is prepandemic and then apply those to institutions moving forward.”

He said his department is currently working on what metrics will be assessed and how they’ll be used to determine funding. He said the province expects to release those details in the coming months and have agreements signed with postsecondary institutions by the end of this year or in early 2021.

Neil Fassina, president of Athabasca University and chair of the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta, said the council wasn’t opposed to performance-based funding and some schools had been advocating for such a model.

Dr. Fassina said simply delaying the implementation could derail the work already done on creating a system that will work for postsecondary schools, but he added that the shift needs to take COVID-19 into account.

“In the time of a pandemic, it makes it hard to get measurements that aren’t going to be influenced by external factors," he said.

“Let’s focus on the fact that we’re not going to be in a state of ‘normal’ for a number of years. So while we can start to make that transition to performance-based funding, we have to recognize that we’re not going to get it perfect to start with.”

At MacEwan University in Edmonton, president Annette Trimbee said she’s optimistic that the performance-based funding will result in positive changes in the postsecondary system, but she said it would not make sense to evaluate that performance based on what’s happening now.

“The magnitude of COVID makes it a little hard to make future decisions based on exactly how people perform this year,” she said. “There will be a lot of history written about how everybody adapted in this particular year. So if you’re making decisions, you want to pick a more stable period."

The Opposition New Democrats' advanced education critic, David Eggen, said the performance-based funding model didn’t make sense in normal times and it makes even less sense to move ahead with it during a pandemic.

“It’s completely out of step with both the pandemic and the economic reality we’re facing in Alberta,” he said.

“If they do do that, it would only be piling onto the disruption and economic crisis that our universities and colleges are facing."

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