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Academic Views

Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs

The Honourable Minister of Advanced Education, Demetrios Nicolaides, released the much-anticipated Alberta 2030 strategy on April 29th. The Faculty Association welcomed opportunities to participate in this engagement process and will continue to engage in this process. We have several concerns with the strategy and will discuss some of that below, and we are interested in getting more member input on the strategy. Members are asked to give input either to their Department Representatives to be discussed at the next Department Representatives meeting or by email to [email protected].

The strategy focuses on six goals with few hints at how they might be achieved but gives few details. The goals as presented in the strategy are as follows:

  1. Improve Access and Student Experience: Ensure all Albertans have access to high-quality post-secondary opportunities and that the student experience is coordinated and integrated.
  2. Develop Skills for Jobs: Ensure every student has the skills, knowledge and competencies to enjoy fulfilling lives and careers and that they have greater transparency around labour market outcomes.
  3. Support Innovation and Commercialization: Contribute to Alberta’s innovation capacity by supporting post-secondary research and strengthening its commercialization potential to create new knowledge, develop future skills and diversify the economy.
  4. Strengthen Internationalization: Become a leading destination for top talent to drive the growth of skills, ideas and innovations, locally and globally.
  5. Improve Sustainability and Affordability: Provide institutions greater flexibility to generate own-source revenue and strengthen student aid.
  6. Strengthen System Governance: Modernize governance of the system to increase collaboration and drive outcomes.

Overall, the strategy raises high ideals where the implementation could be positive or draconian. While the strategy presents a relatively optimistic outlook for the province’s post-secondary sector, it is impossible to ignore the Government’s actions to date. The Government has been massively cutting post-secondary education resulting in staff layoffs, micromanaging, interfering, and intervening at the bargaining table and on various issues, supporting comments about post-secondary education and research that is about using it solely as a tool for business, and, in general, creating a high level of distrust regarding their motives and actions. Given all of this, and the fact that Alberta’s post-secondary system is competing on a global stage, it isn’t clear how the Government can expect to achieve even the most innocuous, well-meaning objectives such as to “attract and nurture world-class faculty and students.”

The strategy’s goals to improve access to post-secondary education are positive, but there is a clear focus on “preparing for a specific job or career” and the promotion of entrepreneurialism. This is a narrow view of education and short-sighted given Alberta’s transitioning economy. This relates to other goals and proposed metrics that would evaluate programs based on the ability of graduates to find jobs in their field of study. Many disciplines do not have clearly defined associated jobs that can be prepared for, and asking recent graduates if they are employed in a job related to their field of study is highly subjective. Likewise, while work-integrated learning opportunities may be highly valuable for some career paths, some disciplines are likely to struggle with connecting students to positions within the discipline.

Among the most concerning of the strategy’s goals is that of modernizing the governance of post-secondary institutions. This goal will likely be most relevant to Academic Staff and is potentially very good news or very bad news for Alberta post-secondary institutions. The Faculty Association consistently advocates for Governments to depoliticize Boards of Governors and to avoid interference. However, given that this Government has a history of partisan Governor appointments and interference, it seems unlikely that we will achieve such a goal.

Faculty members are fundamental stakeholders in post-secondary education, and this is formalized within our collegial and bicameral governance structures. The principles of academic freedom and collegial governances are at the core of Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions. However, the Alberta 2030 strategy seems to be missing any recognition or even an understanding of the collegial and bicameral governance structure under which the Universities in Alberta operate.

The University of Calgary has a bicameral governance model that shares governances between the Board of Governors and the General Faculties Council (GFC). The GFC, which currently has responsibility for areas such as the academic and research plans, academic quality (pedagogy, learning and scholarship/research), programming, curriculum and methods of instruction, academic standards, research, and academic policies and awards, is composed of members by virtue of their office and academic staff members who are elected from each Faculty.

The strategy calls for changes to how programs get created or eliminated and increased opportunities for micro-credentials and retraining. Perhaps this is intended as an antidote to the predictable consequences that come with focussing too strongly on training for specific jobs and career paths. Depending on how this is implemented, this has the potential to undermine the authority of the GFC and erode academic freedom and collegial governance.

The strategy presents a planned initiative of setting a national standard for policies and practices that foster commercialization, which is interesting, but it isn’t clear if it is again one of those ideas that may be helpful or harmful. In addition, there is a strategy to implement an intellectual property framework to foster industry/institution collaboration, and adoption of faculty promotion and tenure policies to incentivise faculty to pursue entrepreneurial activities. This causes us concern.

It appears that the sudden shift to online learning during the pandemic is being used as justification for a permanent shift towards online modes of instruction. One of the strategies is to support the development of online learning including the support for the expansion of “Open Educational Resources”. It isn’t clear if there would be enhanced protection for the intellectual property rights of these resources under the proposed intellectual property framework or if producing open educational resources would qualify as “entrepreneurial activity”. Meanwhile, the suddenly increased workload associated with creating or recreating learning materials for online instruction has not been fully acknowledged by the University Administration.

Ultimately, the Alberta 2030 strategy that has been released gives some insight into the future of Alberta’s post-secondary education but whether the strategy is good news depends on how it is implemented and there is still a great deal of work to do. Our Faculty Association will continue to follow this closely and raise concerns when possible. Again, we would like to hear from our members either by sharing input with your Department Representatives to be discussed at the next Department Representatives meeting or by email to [email protected].

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