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Alberta’s postsecondary institutions should be ready for a new fiscal environment as oil prices decline, the province’s education minister says, pledging to make sure universities and colleges will not be taken by surprise by any future changes in funding.

Ireneusz Skorupa/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alberta's postsecondary institutions should be ready for a new fiscal environment as oil prices decline, the province's education minister says, pledging to make sure universities and colleges will not be taken by surprise by any future changes in funding.

Don Scott was appointed Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education in September and has been what he calls a "listening minister" since, talking to students and postsecondary administrators. Almost two years ago, institutions were shocked when the province cut $100-million rather than hiking their budgets as expected.

"The Premier has given me pretty strict direction that I am to be pretty fiscally prudent going forward," Mr. Scott said.

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This week's fiscal update projected an 8-per-cent drop in oil prices, and the budgets of all departments will be affected. But there are also opportunities, Mr. Scott said, pointing to the "market modifier" proposals his ministry is assessing.

The proposals would allow tuition in primarily professional programs to rise beyond the rate of inflation, the maximum amount under the province's current framework. Law, business and pharmacy at the University of Alberta, and law, business and engineering at the University of Calgary are looking for increases of more than 50 per cent. Overall, 10 schools submitted 26 applications and the results will be released soon, Mr. Scott said.

Adjusting tuition "is one technique that institutions have to maintain their competitiveness," Mr. Scott said. Some professional programs are much cheaper than comparable degrees elsewhere, but do not bring in enough money to invest in improvements, he added. A University of Toronto law student pays $60,000 more over the course of a degree than a University of Alberta student, for example.

Student groups in the province have been divided on the proposals, with undergraduates at the University of Alberta staging protests even though law and business students at the school supported the applications. Mr. Scott said he wanted to speak with as many students as possible when he took over the job.

Access, particularly for under-represented groups such as aboriginal students is important to him. His own parents did not have postsecondary education, and they were adamant that he go to university. Mr. Scott, a lawyer, graduated from the University of New Brunswick and Cambridge.

"One of the themes I heard especially from the MBA and law students is they don't want to be the cheapest, they want to be the best. When they are talking to me about their programs, they want to make sure they are getting a quality education," he said.

Whatever the impact of a new budget, education in Alberta is still affordable, with students paying a quarter of the cost, lower than in other provinces, Mr. Scott said. No decisions have been made on whether broader changes are needed to postsecondary funding. "The one thing that is important is that institutions need the lead time to plan," Mr. Scott said.

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