Unlocking Alberta’s Potential: Social Policy Framework

July 26, 2012

Recognizing education as a solution to many of our social issues is essential to any Social Policy Framework. The benefits of education, especially post-secondary, are well documented, spanning from improved income and health, to increased participation in the community. Although Alberta’s post-secondary institutions are world leaders, too often access to our own system is blocked to those from the lowest income brackets.

We are suggesting three approaches of integrating post-secondary education into Alberta’s Social Policy Framework: improving the opportunities of under-represented groups in our post-secondary education to attend; improving the opportunities of students already in our system to succeed and complete their programs; and increase the opportunities of those who graduate from our post-secondary system to lead their communities and give back to their society. All of which speak to the theme of harnessing the full potential of our province by increasing our post-secondary participation rate, at present the lowest in Canada.

Opportunities to Attend

Developing increased opportunities in Alberta’s post-secondary education system first takes planning, and we are taking the right first steps through infrastructure investment. But we are still dealing with a system that operates at near 100% capacity and still falls short in terms of offering a spot to every qualified Albertans who wants to pursue post-secondary education.

We need to do more than just create spots – we need to remove the barriers to accessing those seats. Academic barriers and financials barriers are the most often cited reasons for not attending by young Albertans who do not enroll in post-secondary education following high school, and often those barriers go hand in hand.

Targeted upfront non-repayable aid continues to be the best tool we have to encouraging enrollment and completion – better than back end tools such as tax credits or even universal tools like tuition relief, and when dealing with limited resources and specific social goals we want to get the most for public funds.

In any case, focusing on education, from kindergarten to providing opportunities in all areas of post-secondary education needs to be a priority for Alberta’s Social Policy Framework. The goal needs to be not just meeting the basic human needs for each member of our society but to create a positive bias towards those who are currently shut out of the system.

Opportunities to Succeed

Being a post-secondary student and living in poverty is a cliche, often considered by many a right of passage. But students at our universities, colleges, and technical institutes come from a diversity of backgrounds and all need to study in an environment they know that they will have the opportunity to complete their program without worrying where their next meal will come from or how the roof over their head will be paid for.

The current situation focuses on a joint system of student financial aid provided by the federal and provincial governments and administered by the provincial government. Improvements over the past decade have increased access to loans by increasing the amount of available aid, reducing the amount of resources that count against a student’s award.

There also exists in tandem a system of non-repayable assistance: scholarships, bursaries, and grants. As a result of the global economic downturn our provincial system has moved non-repayable monies into loans, a move designed to ensure that student awards are maintained. However such a move has come at a cost of increasing debt levels that has in turn discouraged the same audience that student financial aid aims to target. The opportunity now is to rebalance that equation in favour of non-repayable aid that continues throughout your post-secondary career.

There is a hidden cost to poverty and other social issues on campus as well, and we see it reflected in the services on campus. For example we know from our campus food banks, currently being used at higher rates than ever before, a direct correlation between the economic situation and food bank use exists. Another example would be our campuses’ mental health counselling services being put under unprecedented pressure, with students having to wait weeks before receiving help. Our Social Policy Framework cannot then ignore those who enter the system without completing.

Opportunities to Contribute

Alberta’s university students have an important contribution to make to Alberta’s Social Policy Framework – graduates. We will be the backbone of our community’s future – and we are excited about contributing to being a part of the solution to the issues facing our society.

The goals for Alberta’s Social Policy Framework are ambitious, such as ending poverty in ten years. How are we going to meet such lofty expectations? It is going to take action in many different directions but one of the main thrusts is going to be post-secondary education because not only will we need to be educating individuals to help them reach their full potential, we are going to need smart individuals to develop, plan, and implement Alberta’s social policy along the way.

By embracing the goal of increasing our post-secondary participation rate we will be feeding a positive feedback cycle that will pay social dividends for decades to come. Today’s graduates will become community leaders, mentors, and entrepreneurs for tomorrow’s generation who in turn will inspire a new wave of prosperity and social equality for the entire community.