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Universities bearing the brunt of Alberta’s slash to education spending

The University of Alberta campus in Edmonton.

RICHARD SIEMENS/HANDOUT

A $100-million cut to Alberta's higher-education spending has knocked universities off balance even as they braced for a grim provincial budget.

Overall spending within Alberta's advanced education ministry will drop 3.6 per cent, but universities' operating budgets are bearing the brunt of the pain, shedding 6.8 per cent in the coming year. At the same time, the province is promising students it won't allow extra tuition increases to make up the shortfall.

As with Alberta's broader outlook, the cuts are a sharp reversal in the post-secondary sector's expectations. Last year's budget promised universities, colleges and technical institutes predictable 2-per-cent boosts to their operating grants for three years so they could plan ahead. That pledge quickly wilted under current fiscal shortfalls, meaning schools face a swing of nearly 9 per cent in their expected operating revenues.

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"I was very surprised, I was horrified, because they could have given us a warning. We've been asking for about two months – give us some numbers, so we can plan," said Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta. "If you think about the University of Alberta, we are a $1.7-billion operation. I've said before, we don't turn on a dime, and if we were asked to, that would be very irresponsible."

Finance Minister Doug Horner was unapologetic. He said Alberta's universities are still among the best-funded in Canada, and suggested they have fat to trim. He refused to uncap tuition increases to help schools compensate.

"They're taking a hit, yeah," he said. "I know that in post-secondaries there's significant amounts that are there [to cut], because we've never really pushed them, right?"

Not so, University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon said, insisting she recognizes the province's plight, but remains "incredibly surprised and extremely disappointed." She argues Alberta's universities have spent years finding "efficiencies" and "getting our financial house in order."

"This level of cuts will have a serious impact on our students, research and, of course, the innovation system in our province," Dr. Cannon said.

In recent months, UCalgary unveiled ambitious plans to hire 50 new professors and 60 more post-doctoral fellows, and to start work on $240-million in upgrades to student residences. The university remains "very committed" to those targets, she said, but whether it will take longer to achieve remains to be seen.

Students are relieved to see the cap on their tuition fees will remain, but still share universities' concerns about the long-term effects of the cuts across universities and on the wider economy. "This is such a sizable cut, it's going to impact everyone in higher education, and I think we'll feel the residual effects of that throughout the province," said Colten Yamagishi, president of the University of Alberta Students' Union.

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"I think not putting money into post-secondary [education] really keeps us reliant upon resources."

With a report from Josh Wingrove

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