Today I had the pleasure of speaking at an event held by Join Together Alberta, a group of concerned organizations and Albertans who are worried about our public services in Alberta, including post-secondary education.

As a part of our work on the Public Interest Alberta post-secondary education taskforce, and with representation from across the system, not just university students but students, faculty and staff from colleges, technical institutes and universities from across the province we have been growing in our concern with the impact of recent funding decisions from the provincial government coupled with the impact of the economic downturn on our institutions and on our students.

Over the past two years institutions have seen budget deficits and financial difficulties at the same time as they continue to compete globally for new faculty and protect the quality of our education. Those struggles have been felt by staff and faculty, as we have seen classroom sizes grow, faculty-to-student ratios worsen, layoffs and hiring freezes. Programs are being cut by some institutions, while other programs are seeing a reduction in labs and tutorials in an effort to make do with less.

Students are feeling the crunch too.

Costs are going up at our institutions, at a time when youth unemployment continues to be shockingly high.
Recently many of our institutions are getting around the provincial tuition cap by instituting new non-instructional fees to cover growing costs in a time where provincial funds don’t keep pace. These fees, as high as $450 a year at the University of Calgary, represent a significant increase to the cost of education and were implemented with little consultation and are essentially tuition increases by another name.

Tuition in select programs is also going up. The Government of Alberta recently approved tuition increases in six programs for next September well above inflation, as high as 70% in the case of Pharmacy at the University of Alberta. Add in the fact that in Alberta the cost of living continues to be among the highest in the country and it is no surprise that Alberta has the lowest post-secondary participation rate in the country. The answer to these concerns from the government seems to be that students can simply borrow the money. However, they recently cut over $88 million from our grant, bursary, scholarship and debt relief program, guaranteeing that student debt is going to go up and that this next cohort is going to graduate with more debt than ever before.

These concerns are why we are supporting Join Together Alberta and this initiative to translate our enormous advantages as a province – in resources but especially in people – into a prosperous society that we all hope for. That society is going to take engineers and doctors, teachers and entrepreneurs, people from many industries and the public services – many doing jobs that don’t yet exist.

Making that hope come true requires public services and a public education system, from kindergarten to post-secondary, that offers the opportunity to every Albertan to meet their potential. Alberta’s public sector, the schools and hospitals and the services that they provide in our province took too long to build to just throw away at the first sign of economic decline – in fact it is those services including our post-secondary institutions that will provide the fabric for the economic recovery and continued prosperity in Alberta. We need to speak up and join together to advocate for great public services, including an education system that is world-class, accessible to all, and affordable to any who want to pursue their dreams.

Visit the Join Together Alberta website and see how you can be a part of the solution in advocating for our public services, including post-secondary education.