Alberta’s Blue Ribbon Panel report is out. The plan for post-secondary education is similar to the one in the mid-nineties, when Premier Klein’s government imposed deep cuts to provincial grants, and allowed universities to respond with substantial student fee increases.

So how did things actually turn out?

With hindsight provided by a visit to the archives, the outcome was a troubling amalgam of weak university governance and lacking provincial vigilance. The official numbers* are disturbing.

Between 1993 and 1997 (U of A and U of C combined):

  • Provincial grant income fell by 14%
  • Student fee income increased by 49%
  • Spending on Instruction fell by 5%
  • Expenditure on academic salaries fell by 9%

Students, the sons and daughters of Albertans, from big cities and small rural communities, were hammered; a clear pathway to deep student debt was opened. The classroom cuts were a massive hit when four years of inflation and rising enrollment are taken into account; class sizes increased, quality declined.

But, amidst the carnage, one area prospered – Central Administration. It covers the top leadership (the president, VPs and their support staff), and functions such as external relations, financial services, human resources, and the registrar’s office. In this area:

  • Overall costs rose by 30%
  • Salary expenditures increased by 11%
  • Spending on furniture & equipment rose by 314%

For the central bureaucracy to expand at this time was Orwellian; all animals were equal, but some were more equal than others.

It would be interesting to see if anything similar occurred at Alberta’s other post-secondary institutions.

The Panel rightly touched on administration costs and governance standards, but the strong focus on tuition fee increases suggests that the province will repeat past mistakes.

Both U of A and U of C have serious problems with support costs, even when compared to peers that have their own issues. The (inflation-adjusted) cost of Central Administration at U of A increased from $72 million in 2001 to $171 million in 2018; at U of C it rose from $56 million to $101 million. They have participated fully – and some – in the bureaucratization that has been emasculating many of Canada’s universities for over two decades.

The correct response from the Panel would have been to require the universities to rectify their inefficiencies – NOT shunt the problems onto students by removing the restraints on tuition fee increases.

Alberta has the lowest post-secondary participation rates in Canada, and has to import skills. Student debt is already at record levels – hobbling young Albertans before they even get started. The Panel’s recommendations, if implemented, would exacerbate some already-serious problems.

It’s difficult to believe that a conservative government would act to worsen the inefficient use of public funds, and to drive up economy-dragging student debt. But that’s what the Panel’s recommendations, if implemented, would do. Just as the cuts of the mid-nineties did.

Some feet certainly need to be held to the fire, but they aren’t student feet.

* The numbers come from the annual reports of the Canadian Association of University Business Officers – the agency founded by Canada’s universities back in 1937 as a data-sharing platform. Expenditures exclude Internal Sales & Cost Recoveries.