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There's no excuse for the University of Alberta's program cuts

Photo: facebook/University of Alberta

On Friday, The University of Alberta circulated an internal memo announcing it would cut twenty programs in the Faculty of Arts. The decision comes two weeks after the administration offered early retirement buyouts to its faculty in response to "informal messages" from the provincial Ministry of Education that the University was dragging its feet on balancing its books.

The provincial budget, issued in March, slashed $47 million in operating grants from the University of Alberta, part of a seven per cent province-wide cut to postsecondary education.

The justification for the budgetary and program cuts has not inspired much confidence in the province or University administration on the parts of faculty and students. For one, Deputy Premier and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk offered the helpful suggestion (free of charge) to postsecondary administrations that a friendly bit of inter-school collaboration could save oodles of cash: just combine faculties and departments. "You don't want to have five mediocre engineering schools,"   Lukaszuk said in March. "You're better off having two really good engineering schools. There's no doubt about it."

Of course, Alberta only has two engineering schools (for now) that may or may not be mediocre. But the principle stands: who needs diversity, plurality, multiple methodologies and pedagogies when it comes to education? Certainly not Alberta.

And although her hands remain significantly tied by her provincial budget strings, U of A Arts Dean Lesley Cormack might have come up with something less ramshackle in her defence of "suspending admissions" (a euphemism which bears proud ancestry with such corporate-speak  legends like "finding efficiencies" and "rightsizing") than buttoning up Lukaszuk's position that these cuts were about finding what's "relevant" to students.

It's a continuation of the consumerist funding model all universities in Canada employ, which distributes funds according to which classes and programs sell best. Instead of relying on the expertise and experience of its faculty to curate and develop courses that challenge boundaries or resonate with contemporary life in ways that are not always immediately visible, schedules and syllabuses become increasingly vulnerable to the fickle whims of the educational marketplace.

And, naturally, if these cuts were really about what's "relevant" to students, students would be in favour of them. But, just as naturally, they're not.

Furthermore, since postsecondary education, particularly in the Arts, is one of the few drivers of gender equality in the Alberta economy (women make an astonishing $6.04 per hour less than men in the province), these cuts will disproportionately affect women.

Finally, and most tragically, these cuts are occurring in Canada's richest province. A province where a tax no bigger than a rounding error could make its universities the best funded in the world. Norway, a common point of international comparison for Alberta based on its similar size, population and oil wealth, has amassed a Petroleum Savings Fund of $664 billion in assets, of which only dividends going to current domestic spending. In comparison, the Alberta Heritage Savings Fund, only nine years younger than Norway's, contains just $16 billion.  That difference isn't just shocking; it's criminal.

Cormack has warned that these cuts represent just the first in a long line of "tough decisions" coming Alberta's way this year.  Austerity was always ideological, but now it's a parody even of the Chicago School cocktail napkin it was scribbled on. Austerity in a province drunk on oil money. Education cuts in an economy with all its money riding on a non-renewable resource. Pedagogy advice from an education minister who can't count to two.

It's not too late to turn these cuts around, but it's getting there. Stop them, Alberta. There's no excuse.

Photo: facebook/University of Alberta

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