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The University of Alberta's provostat, Martin Ferguson-Pell, pictured with the book of transfer agreements at the University of Alberta in Edmonton Alberta, March 27, 2013.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

It seemed so straightforward. After two years and 66 credits earned at the University of Manitoba, Matthew Armstrong transferred to the University of Lethbridge to be closer to home. He did not change his major from psychology, and his transcripts included simple survey courses like Introduction to Greek and Roman Mythology.

"Nothing new has happened in Greek and Roman mythology in quite some time," he notes.

When Lethbridge officials offered him only 30 equivalent credits he was stunned and he fought the ruling. "I had to drive to Lethbridge over the summer three or four times," said Mr. Armstrong, now chair of the Alberta Students' Executive Council. He eventually prevailed, but he routinely hears similar stories around Alberta, and wonders, "how many people do we lose because they say, 'if you're not going to give [the credits] to me, I'm done, I'm not coming?'"

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Credit transfer – a headache in every province – is part of a package of issues the Alberta government is trying to tackle by drafting new mandates for the province's universities and colleges. Ontario has been toying with a similar concept for nearly two years, but Alberta has been swift in sketching out its desire for all schools to collaborate to be more efficient and responsive to student demand. And concern is spreading around campuses that draft letters sent to universities and colleges could erode their autonomy by seeking to steer everything from program closings to research directions.

"The mood ranges from angry to scared," said Duane Bratt, chair of the policy studies department at Mount Royal University, adding that some colleagues are fearing for their jobs. "And I would say that's the case for faculty, students and administration. They've been able to unite the campus."

The five-page draft letters come only two weeks after Premier Alison Redford's government slashed schools' operating grants by 7 per cent as part of its recent hard-luck budget. As universities grapple with the fallout, Thomas Lukaszuk, the new advanced education minister and Deputy Premier, is open about capitalizing on the cutbacks as a "catalyst" for changes to the system.

The letters ask that universities and colleges review programs to ensure they "are in demand by employers and students," call for "reductions in program duplication" and require indicators to measure "program outcomes." They also ask for increased collaboration with industry to respond to "regional economic and social needs." And they expect schools to create 10 per cent more "seamless learner pathways," such as transfer credits.

"It's not about amalgamating programs, it's not about centralized administration of curriculum of universities, but it's simply encouraging them to share the resources that they have," Mr. Lukaszuk said in an interview. "In Alberta, we have 26 postsecondary institutions and I have to tell you, when I look at their operations, to a very high extent they work in silos, … as if they were operating in different countries."

University of Alberta provost Martin Ferguson-Pell disagrees – with a loud thud. In a phone interview, he dropped the province's guide containing student transfer agreements on his desk for effect, noting it has grown to "the size of a telephone book." Forty per cent of upper-year students at the U of A have have transferred into the university, he noted.

"There is always room for improvement, and we're certainly very willing and keen to keep Alberta at the forefront of the country," he said, but added that a 10-per-cent boost to 'learner pathways' is difficult to measure.

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Even those who say the letters align well with their own plans worry about the timing. "The draft letter talks about having program outcomes by the end of this calendar year, which I think would be a very big challenge," said University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon.

At the University of Lethbridge, president Mike Mahon is keen to make sure the province's desire for harmonization doesn't chip away at the features that make schools like his distinctive.

"Why do students move to particular institutions? Well, they actually do so because they're looking for the different experience that Lethbridge provides or Queen's provides or St. Francis Xavier provides," he said. "I actually think that this notion that we should harmonize everything is not a student-centred notion, but actually it works against what students are looking for."

Mr. Lukaszuk insists there is "a lot of wiggle room" in the draft letters, and he expects they will change as he gets feedback from institutions.

"But the spirit of what we're trying to achieve will have to be maintained," he said.

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