Two prairie provinces switch roles with budget release

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Alberta playing second fiddle to Saskatchewan in post-secondary funding

Tannara Yelland
CUP Prairies and Northern Bureau Chief

SASKATOON (CUP) — In Alberta and Saskatchewan a long-time dynamic has reversed itself, and universities are feeling the change.

Alberta has enjoyed the advantages of its flourishing oil and gas industries for decades, becoming an economic juggernaut in Canada. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has struggled to maintain and grow its economy. It was only a few years ago that Saskatchewan was able to proclaim itself a “have” province.

But now the two provinces have switched places.

Saskatchewan posted a reasonable surplus forecast for 2011-12 and increased operating grants to its two main universities, while Alberta expects to run a significant deficit and offered zero per cent increases to its universities for the second year in a row.

Those zero per cent increases are, in effect, about a four per cent decrease over two years due to inflation. The provincial operating grant provides public universities like the universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Calgary, and Regina the bulk of their funding.

Aden Murphy, a students’ union vice-president at the University of Alberta, said that he understands the province’s budgetary constraints and has “mixed feelings” about the financial news.

“There weren’t any cuts [to U of A funding] and there weren’t any big restorations, so we kind of just maintained the skeleton of a student financial aid system that we already have,” he said.

Administrators at the U of A declined to be interviewed, but board of governors meeting minutes that discussed the university’s 2011-12 budget said, “The cumulative effect of consecutive zero per cent funding increases to the operating grant has already resulted in substantial budget reductions and reallocations.”

The minutes further stressed the university’s increasingly dire situation by noting, “Without adequate investment going forward, the ability of the institution to provide a high quality educational experience and fulfill its research mission is at risk.”

Last year, students at the U of A were upset to find they would be charged a $290 non-instructional fee for common student space, sustainability and safety. The fee was intended to relieve some of the school’s budget stress in a year when it expected to run a significant deficit, but according to Murphy, this fee is set to continue in perpetuity and is not intended to pay for any increase in services for students.

Part of the reason the fee was implemented is because Alberta tuition is capped to increases by the consumer price index. That is not the case in Saskatchewan, where tuition has been increasing at an average of five per cent each year since a five-year tuition freeze ended in spring 2009.

For the 2011-12 year, however, the Saskatchewan government has offered the University of Saskatchewan a larger operating grant increase than it was expecting — five per cent rather than four per cent — in exchange for securing a three per cent average tuition increase for students.

Blair Shumlich, a vice-president with the U of S’s students’ union, said his union is pleased with the budget and what it offers students, calling it “fantastic.”

“The budget addressed nearly everything students asked for,” he said.

Shumlich said he would have preferred to see tuition rise more than it did. This is because the university has been forced to cut spending on programs and “has a long list of infrastructure and capital needs.”

Part of the funding for those needs, Shumlich said, will need to come from students’ tuition. But he added the three per cent increase “is a reasonable number.”

Despite this continuing need, the U of S seems to be in a competitive position compared to schools across the country. U of S vice-president finance and resources Richard Florizone said where other schools were seeing more funding several years ago, the U of S has moved ahead since the beginning of the recession.

“Our general sense is of a little bit more tightening [elsewhere],” he said. “And that’s really consistent with the economy. I think we can say that the increase [in funding] at the University of Saskatchewan compares favourably with other provinces.”

The U of S is also in a good position in terms of tuition, even with the increases of the past few years. Florizone explained there is some confusion sometimes about how tuition should be ranked. Statistics Canada measures only the tuition schools charge, which leads to the U of S appearing to be more expensive than the national average.

But Florizone said the U of S takes pains to avoid charging students extra fees like the U of A’s new fee. Consequently, if one measures both fees and tuition, the U of S is “well below the national average.“

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