The budget cuts to post-secondary education will not only trickle down and affect the entire Lethbridge economy, they will also have a negative impact on the quality of education and threaten the autonomy and free speech that universities are founded on.
Those were some of the thoughts of several speakers scheduled to talk at a special session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs Tuesday evening.
The session addressed the question of whether the cuts to post-secondary education are justifiable. The University of Lethbridge's operating budget will be cut by about $12 million and Lethbridge College's operating budget by nearly $3.5 million.
Chris Nicol, economics professor and dean of Arts and Sciences, said the provincial budget and the letters of expectation that flowed to institutions in the aftermath have created both financial and philosophical challenges. He said he'd like to see the major universities collaborate more closely to craft a response to government.
"It's clearly bad news. From the financial side of things we had a written commitment from this government that certain things would happen this year and they've completely abrogated that agreement," Nicol said. "From a philosophical perspective, the Minister (Thomas Lucaszuk) almost seems to want to use the system for political purposes, tied with their own philosophy within the governing party and that's never what universities have been about."
In her role as the director of policy analysis for the Alberta Federation of Labour, Shannon Phillips sees how the cuts will trickle down.
"It's not just the support staff, the academic staff and the students and their families that this will have an effect on, but in an economy the size of Lethbridge's where post-secondary institutions are such a large employer and a large source of demand for goods and services, there are going to be spin-off effects through our city that have a great impact on the private sector, on small business, on new home starts, on home sales," she said.
Julia Adolf, vice-president academic with the U of L Students' Union, said the province's budget is not student-friendly, despite the government's assertion to the contrary. While tuition fees won't increase this year that could easily change next year.
"We could see the cap removed. We're very worried about that," she said, adding students are also worried that mandatory non-instructional fees will be hiked to compensate for the cuts.
The cuts will lead to larger class sizes, fewer course offerings and negatively affect student services, such as library hours or registrar services, Adolf said.
"They're very much talking about the homogenization of our university system and we're very scared that's going to lead to devaluing of our degrees," she said.
Bill Ramp, a sociology professor, said he has grave concerns about the cuts as they threaten the role post-secondary institutions play in a democracy. The seeming irrationality of the move may lead to an overall weakening of the system before their autonomy is eventually threatened.
"When you undermine the autonomy of universities in such a way that they threaten to become little more than a voice for the policy of the governing party of the day what you're doing is destroying another part of public space," he said. "If we're not prepared to defend free speech and autonomous research then where are we?"
Lethbridge Herald, Wednesday, Apr 10 2013
Byline: Caroline Zentner
Nurses, teachers, health sciences professionals, and public employees urge government to listen to majority of Albertans
Edmonton - Labour leaders are standing up for the majority of Albertans who do not want to see public services cut on March 7.
At a joint press conference on Monday, March 4, at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Edmonton, the presidents of the province's six largest public sector unions and associations urged Alison Redford to listen to Albertans, most of whom want their public services protected. The Alberta Federation of Labour, Alberta Teachers' Association, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Canadian Union of Public Employees-Alberta, Health Sciences Association of Alberta and United Nurses of Alberta have decided to join their voices together to send a clear message about the upcoming budget.
Polling, conducted by Environics from February 14-21, shows that more than 70 per cent of Albertans reject the idea of cuts to public services. More than three quarters of those polled agree that there should be an increase on taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
Far from thinking the government should cut public services, the majority of Albertans believe we should be investing more in health care, education, and other services. Albertans see a growing province, a booming economy, soaring corporate profits and low unemployment, and they're confused as to why health care, education, and community services still don't have the resources they need to do the job right.
Albertans were clear in their message that they support the need for some increased revenues, but that they reject the idea of a sales tax. Only 17 per cent of those polled were in support of a provincial sales tax, 72 per cent said they would be in favour of returning to a progressive income tax, and 77 per cent were in favour of increased taxes on corporations and those who make more than $200,000 per year.
When asked about spending, respondents identified several priorities: Creating a provincial strategy for long-term care for seniors was a high priority for 70 per cent of respondents, while protecting publicly-funded health care against for-profit health care was identified as a high priority by 57 per cent. Nearly half of respondents said that hiring more teachers and support staff for elementary and secondary schools was a high priority.
The government is trying to justify massive cuts to health care and education by saying oil prices have dipped. Albertans aren't buying it. Albertans know a growing economy needs adequate investment in public services.
Because labour leaders were concerned about the direction that budget discussions had been going, they commissioned a poll by Environics Research Group to find out what Alberta are looking for. The poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 Albertans, is considered to have a margin of error of +/- 3.1, with a 95% confidence level.
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Redford government's promise to keep building Alberta despite budget woes and bitumen bubbles could lead the province to embrace alternative financing to pay for high-priority construction projects.
Premier Alison Redford and high-ranking cabinet ministers have said repeatedly since last fall they will borrow to bankroll critical infrastructure projects such as the twinning of Highway 63 to Fort McMurray.
Some of that debt could come in the form of public-private partnerships — an alternative method of building, maintaining and paying for major public works projects often referred to by the acronym P3.
"I think we've been pretty clear, we're not only going to be using P3s, but we're going to be using the capital markets for infrastructure and only when it makes financial sense to do so," Finance Minister and Treasury Board president Doug Horner said in an interview last week.
The 2013-14 budget to be delivered March 7 should add clarity. But if the province decides to use P3s to spread out construction costs, it will build on a decade of experience with the format.
Since 2003, the government has used the financing method to build large sections of Edmonton and Calgary's ring roads, as well as 41 schools and a water and sewer treatment plan in Kananaskis.
Under a P3, a government signs a contract with a private partner who agrees to design, build, maintain, and sometimes operate, the project over a period of time. That private company finances some or all of the project, and the government repays the company, with interest, over a set term of several years.
As an example, the northeast leg of Anthony Henday Drive, scheduled to open in 2016, is a $1.81-billion P3 project that will be repaid over 34 years.
Redford has made no secret of her interest in P3s. When she became honorary chairwoman of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships in November, she said in a statement she was pleased to work with the council to champion P3s across Canada.
After last week's Alberta Economic Summit, Redford described discussions related to P3s as "fundamental."
"There was much comment about the fact this isn't about incurring debt, this is about assuming risk," she said. "That these are still assets that continue to be publicly owned, but they allow us to build them in a more effective way."
Still, the subject of borrowing to pay for schools, roads or housing projects — always contentious in a province that wore its debt-free status like a badge of honour — becomes even more complicated when discussing P3s.
Advocates praise them as an efficient way of building and transferring risk from the public to the private sector. The P3 for the northeast leg of the Henday means the 27-kilometre stretch of road will be finished three years faster than through traditional channels and for $340 million less, according to the province.
Critics, however, pan P3s for their lack of flexibility and contractual secrecy.
NDP MLA David Eggen pointed to the complaints that surfaced in the first round of P3 schools that opened in Edmonton and Calgary in September 2010. Those schools, built on a standard design, faced many restrictions on how they could be used.
Alberta Education said last March they adjusted the contracts for the next round of P3 schools to allow outside groups to lease space for things like child care programs or community events.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said he was disappointed to hear Redford focusing on P3s after the summit. He believes they do not provide better value for taxpayers.
"We now have more than three decades of (international) experience with P3s and what that experience shows us is that P3s are a shell game that almost never works for citizens and taxpayers," McGowan said.
"P3s are helpful to politicians in the short run because it allows them to move upfront costs for large infrastructure projects off the books in the short term, but over the long term we end up paying at least as much, if not more."
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith said P3s are simply another form of borrowing, which her party opposes in all forms. "We simply do not believe that once you start down the track of borrowing money that a government will ever stop," Smith said.
Anthony Boardman, Van Dusen professor of business administration at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, studies P3s. He said experience indicates that if a project is complicated, it may be better to keep it within government.
"Over time, what's happened is some governments are better at managing them, although there's still a fair amount of evidence we pay too much for them," Boardman said.
There are ways the government can make sure a P3 is a good fit, he said. One important step is to have an independent evaluation process looking not just at the financial impact of a P3, but also the social costs.
Governments often fail to take the social consequences of P3s into account, such as limits the arrangement might impose on community groups' use of a school building.
"That's a problem," Boardman said. "The reason why they don't is because it's not easy. But instead of doing the wrong thing because it's easy, on all projects we should devote the resources to getting it right."
The government also needs to be as transparent as possible, Boardman said.
In Alberta, the provincial government publishes more information today about new P3s than it did for the first P3s a decade earlier. Alberta Transportation's information about the northeast leg of the Henday includes a value for money report and contract information. (http://www.transportation.alberta.ca/3787.htm).
It also consults with the Advisory Committee on Alternative Financing, a panel of private-sector experts that examines the business cases for P3s and gives its opinions to Treasury Board.
Committee chairman Tim Melton, executive chairman of Melcor Development's board of directors, said P3s can be an excellent way for government to build but are not the best fit for every project.
Whether the government uses P3s, traditional bonds or cash to pay for construction, Alberta's finance minister said the province will take the advice Albertans have been giving to act more like a business when it comes to deciding how to pay for infrastructure.
"Money-in-the-mattress mentalities don't work," Horner said. "It certainly doesn't create value for future generations of Albertans.
"We have growth in this province and that makes us different than almost every jurisdiction in the country and we have to manage for that."
The Edmonton Journal, Monday, February 18, 2013
Byline: Sarah O'Donnell
CALGARY - Public sector unions are bracing to fight impending provincial cutbacks driven by a multi-billion dollar cash crunch.
And a prominent economist said Premier Alison Redford's TV address to Albertans Thursday fails to come to grips with a looming budget shortfall larger than the province is letting on.
Even before Redford's speech, the Alberta Federation of Labour was readying a public relations offensive to offer alternatives to slashing spending on crucial programs, said president Gil McGowan.
"The public sector unions have been meeting the past couple of weeks to discuss the implications of the budget and, like a lot of Albertans, we're prepared for the worst," McGowan said Friday.
Alberta's fiscal chickens are coming home to roost after years of tax-slashing for wealthier Albertans and a resource revenue giveaway to a wildly profitable energy industry, he said.
"Our provincial GDP is literally 75% higher than the rest of the country, yet we can no longer afford even to have run-of-the-mill services," said McGowan. "I call it the great Alberta disconnect."
After meeting with Finance Minister Doug Horner last Tuesday, McGowan said it's clear areas like education and health care won't be spared drastic action in the budget expected in March.
"Everything we've heard is suggesting the budget won't be as bad as what we saw in the (Ralph) Klein years, but worse than anything we've seen since," he said.
University of Calgary economist Dr. Jack Mintz said Redford's TV address muddied the fiscal waters, and unmentioned obligations like financing requirements could see a shortfall of $8-$10 billion.
"This government has considerable credibility problems as far as their budget plan," he said.
Even with budget cuts averaging 5% over all departments - or a $2-billion slim-down - an ocean of red ink will remain because the discount on Alberta bitumen will also persist for years, added Mintz.
"If they don't make major cuts this years, the sustainability fund will be depleted and they'll be borrowing because they don't want to take it from the heritage fund," he said.
Educators watched Redford with considerable interest, hoping the province's commitment made to them last year in a three-year funding pact will hold in March, said Calgary public school board vice-chairman Lynn Ferguson.
"We are certainly aware of the economic challenges facing the province," said Ferguson.
"I would hope since education is a consistent priority for Albertans, that value would be reflected even in a difficult budget year."
Sun News, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013
Byline: Bill Kaufmann