It’s been awhile since we’ve taken a policy tour out west, but it’s time I think to take a look at what’s going on in Alberta, where the NDP government is past its midpoint and starting to work towards an election in 2019.
One day, someone is going to write a fantastic political book about the Alberta NDP. This is a party that went from (essentially) nothing to government in the space of a few crazy weeks in 2015. They take over, operate a remarkably scandal-free government for a pack of rookies and implement a moderately Keynesian platform in the teeth of a vicious oil price decline. At which point they realize: holy crap, more spending actually doesn’t solve all economic problems. And all those things they used to want to spend money on? Those are now areas that have to be managed very, very carefully.
This isn’t hypocrisy or anything (though I’m sure that’s something their allies will accuse them of over the next 18 months). It’s called getting to grips with governing. That’s a good thing. But it’s going to take some getting used to in the post-secondary sector, which is one of those fields where they spent a lot of dough in 2015 and now seem to be wondering about value for money.
Back on December 1, the Alberta government sent a letter to all universities urging “hiring restraint, deferring non-essential grants and limiting travel, hosting, advertising, working sessions and conferences that do not directly impact the provision of services and programs to Albertans,” and requiring them to submit plans to that effect by December 15. To my knowledge, none of those institutional plans is public, and to a certain extent any such plan developed over 2 weeks during the middle of exams is going to be kabuki anyway. The specifics don’t especially matter. What does matter here is that the NDP government appears to have decided that while it wants to keep a tuition fee freeze (there is a report to government coming on this early this year, but my understanding is that the government is unlikely to change policy), it doesn’t actually want to keep spending a lot of money to do so. It would prefer that institutions pay for the promise – at least in part – by finding administrative savings.
Whether or not this a reasonable approach is debatable: what it does show, I think, is that the NDP government is maturing into a real governing party, one which realizes that management of public institutions is at least as – if not more – important than actual spending. In the short term that may be uncomfortable for institutions, but in the medium-term that’s excellent news for both institutions and the province as a whole.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the legislature, the newly-united right-wing United Conservative Party under leader Jason Kenney has started the process of the developing policy. The actual adoption of said policy will occur in the spring at a special convention, but a proposed policy declaration has been published which includes a seven-point plan on post-secondary (see page 7). With respect to the five points that have to do with funding, there is not much to see – the UCP wants to align funding with labour force priorities, spend more on skills and apprenticeships (both straight out of the BC Liberal playbook), encourage more public-private co-operation in research while respecting academic freedom (whatever) and – an interesting one here – ensure accessibility by targeting more aid to low-income students (something the NDP seems unwilling to do). This may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s nothing here remotely out of the Canadian mainstream.
Where the UCP agenda potentially gets interesting is around topics related to freedom. Like the federal Conservatives, they appear to have jumped on the “free speech” bandwagon, with a promise to require institutions to guarantee freedom of speech and assembly to all students and staff on campus (as currently worded, this is a significantly less dumb/more nuanced position than that of the federal Conservatives as it gives a big out-clause with respect to speakers coming from off-campus). But maybe more radical is that the UCP has embraced the notion of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), an idea that has come in and out of fashion in Australia and New Zealand and now looks poised to make a run in Canada, too.
The idea behind VSU is pretty simple – students should be required to opt-in to student government and not required to take membership as a condition of being a student. The goal is to weaken student unions politically, and it’s not difficult to see why Conservatives might sometimes think this is a good idea (though why you’d do it in Alberta, which is home to some of the country’s most professional and least-radical student unions is a mystery). But mark my words, if UCP go forward with this one, it won’t be the last jurisdiction to do so. This could be a fight that lasts for some time; and if it does, I do think that student union governance will come under a lot more scrutiny. Keep watching this file.