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Post-Secondary Cuts Hurt Alberta's Long-Term Competitiveness

04/09/2013 06:16 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

It was almost exactly one year ago today, April 10th, 2012. As the Alberta Party candidate for Calgary Elbow I sat on the stage with Alison Redford at Mount Royal University when she promised $650 million in funding for post-secondary education. The people in the room were understandably excited; they had just heard the premier promise to adequately fund important facilities like MRU because they thought the Premier believed an educated Alberta is a strong Alberta.

As we now know, Alison Redford will say one thing during an election campaign then do another once elected. If she had plans to slash funding for MRU and other post-secondary institutions by 7.2 per cent or more she should have said so. But of course she wouldn't do that during an election campaign because it isn't smart politics.

I'm left to wonder how we've gone from promises of funding increases to radical cuts, but our political leaders often leave us wondering. However this story is about more than broken promises, it's about Alberta's future prosperity.

Blog continues after slideshow

The cost and stress of high education

Led by Advanced Education minister Thomas Lukaszuk the cuts to our post-secondary institutions are being done under the guise of improving efficiency and competitiveness of our universities and colleges. The argument is that our post-secondary institutions aren't producing enough job-ready graduates, they make it difficult to transfer credits and do a poor job of commercializing their innovations. The answer, if you ask our government, is to make shock-and-awe cuts and expect the institutions to sort it out in the ensuing chaos.

But these are different things. Lukaszuk has conflated the issue of operational efficiency with his desire to fundamentally change the role of our universities and colleges. It's the stuff of conspiracy theories; it appears the real agenda is to force universities in particular to focus on job-ready degrees at the expense of liberal arts programs.

I will declare my bias here; as someone with both a Bachelor of Arts and an MBA I'll tell you that the writing, analysis and critical thinking abilities gained from my BA have been far more valuable to me as an entrepreneur than the more "applicable" skills of the MBA.

I believe the answer is not fewer engineers, computer scientists and business grads; the answer is an equal focus on liberal arts with a healthy dose of entrepreneurship.

In a perfect world Alberta will need both (energy development and new industries) for a long time to come, and I sincerely hope that's the case. But if the risks become a reality and the world no longer needs as much of our oil, teaching the next generation to think, to reason and to innovate will be our saving grace.

In the short to medium term Alberta clearly needs more engineers and people with technical degrees, and our universities and colleges should do everything they can to educate everyone who's qualified and interested in these fields. We should also ensure our system operates efficiently and universities work with the private sector to commercialize made-in-Alberta innovations.

But so should we educate anyone who wants to pursue a liberal arts degree. Although it will always be a challenge for arts grads to find their first job, the ability to write, reason and think critically will serve them well in the 21st century knowledge economy. Combined with entrepreneurial skills it's a winning combination and the resulting jobs are not easily outsourced.

Alberta is blessed with enormous natural resource wealth but we know there are serious questions about the future demand for our core products. Whether the challenge is market access, environmental concerns or sharply higher shale oil production it is not at all clear that the world needs as much of our oil as we once thought.

If that comes to pass Alberta will need innovators and leaders to create new economy businesses. The sad truth is that if we only teach people technical skills, there is a risk that those skills won't always be needed. If we teach people to think, they will always be in demand.

In a perfect world Alberta will need both for a long time to come, and I sincerely hope that's the case. But if the risks become a reality and the world no longer needs as much of our oil, teaching the next generation to think, to reason and to innovate will be our saving grace.