'It's clearly bad news'

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

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