May 30, 2003

Legislation will reshape post-secondary education

Lines will blur between colleges, universities

by Richard Cairney
Folio Staff

When the province of Alberta joined Confederation in 1906, the first Act the provincial government passed established the University of Alberta. Our earliest leaders knew higher education was essential to the success of Albertans and their province.

Nearly a century has passed and the provincial Universities Act has, of course, been amended time and again to reflect changing needs in changing times. But now, Alberta Learning Minister Dr. Lyle Oberg is creating new legislation to cover all post-secondary institutions in Alberta. The new legislation updates and amalgamates the Universities Act, the Colleges Act, the Technical Schools Act, and the Banff Centre Act.

The historic overhaul will change the face of post-secondary education in Alberta, supporting the concept of Campus Alberta, an idea to foster greater co-operation among colleges and universities and provide a "seamless" post-secondary system that makes it easier for students to access education. Under the plan, colleges and technical schools could be given the power to grant university-level degrees. Under the proposed legislation, Bill 43: the Post-secondary Learning Act, a new, powerful body called the Campus Alberta Board of Accreditation and Co-ordination would oversee changes in degree-granting status.

The Act also gives colleges, universities and technical institutes the Powers and Privileges of Natural Persons, which allows them the flexibility to conduct business in the same way as regular citizens.

"The intent behind doing this was twofold. The first reason is to include the Campus Alberta Board of Accreditation and Co-ordination in the bill and, more importantly, send a message that people have to work together," said Oberg. "We have got to be collaborative. We can't have a University of Alberta system, a University of Calgary system, a NAIT system, a SAIT system, and so on; it's better for students if we have one system they can move through."

Presently, colleges offer university transfer courses. They provide, for example, the first two years of education in nursing. But Oberg feels the colleges are perfectly capable of providing a full, four-year university education in some disciplines.

"We have some university colleges, for example, that are degree-granting institutions themselves, and colleges and technical schools that are not degree granting; they've expressed a need to grant degrees, and it is something I agree with," Oberg said.

What the minister doesn't agree with is competition between Alberta's post-secondary institutions, which fight for funding and students from the same pools.

"Since I have been minister, one thing I have been pushing is transferability - the idea of working together. And the competition between the institutions drives me crazy. On the one hand they are telling me they are turning students away, yet they are still competing against each other," he said. "We are a small market. There are only three million people in the province. If we are going to compete, let's not compete against each other, let's compete against Harvard and Stanford."

University Provost and Vice President (Academic) Dr. Doug Owram says the U of A isn't raising any objections to bestowing degree-granting powers on colleges. "In fact, we'd like to serve as a mentor, if you will, to help ensure they offer good, quality degrees," he said. "If you look at Ryerson in Toronto, which was a college and moved to a university and has found its own niche, things seem to have worked out well. We'll have to see how it develops here."

Owram is concerned, though, about how the Campus Alberta Board of Accreditation and Co-ordination will operate. He says the board needs to operate independently of government and should have two mandates: one, to determine whether the need exists for expansion of degree-granting status in a given field of study; and two, it needs a panel of academics to review proposed degree programs to ensure the quality is second to none.

"One strength of a Canadian education is that we have a kind of bottom line to a Canadian degree. We have to ensure that people have confidence that every degree coming out of Alberta meets that standard and has recognizable strength," he said.

Oberg knows that employers looking at job applicants who have degrees from, say Mount Royal College, the University of Calgary, and Grant MacEwan College might immediately favour the candidate who attended the U of C.

"Definitely, the committee has to focus on quality," said Oberg, adding that degree program applications should be peer adjudicated. "The degrees have to be accepted right across Canada. We can't have a first-class, second-class situation."

Popular acceptance of the degrees, he admits, "is going to develop over the period of years" as the reputations of new programs grow.

The next step in the process, Oberg says, is a new round of consultation with universities and colleges to fine-tune the legislation, which was introduced into the Legislature earlier this month.

"This is the kind of bill I want to get right," said Oberg. "There is no reason for doing this bill the wrong way. We are going to hear again from post-secondary institutions over the summer, and if there are any changes we will do them in the fall."

That consultation could make for a busy summer. The province has come under criticism for some aspects of the proposed legislation, which would allow the minister to dissolve university or college boards of governors and appoint an administrator to run the institution; the minister would also have the right to dissolve a students' union.

Oberg says that the minister has always had the right to dissolve college and technical school boards under legislation governing those institutions. About a decade ago, he says, the province disbanded the SAIT board of governors. The new Act simply makes the rules consistent across all post-secondary institutions, and addresses issues of accountability of boards and elected officials, he said.

But U of A Students' Union President Mat Brechtel is troubled by the fact that the minister could dissolve a democratically elected body like the SU, and he is worried that the Act may strip student unions of some important powers.

"It downgrades our authority and our mandate," he said. "One thing that worries us is that it has taken out any mention of our ability to levy mandatory of the biggest things we need to do is levy fees so we can provide services to students."

Graduate Students' Association Vice President (Labour Relations) Tracie Scott is pleased that the new Act officially recognizes the GSA as the bargaining agent for graduate students. And she knows there are areas students are concerned with, but she is confident the summer-long consultation process will iron out "oversights" that exist in the legislation.

Owram, too, expects changes to be made over the summer. Alberta's universities, he said, are all concerned with proposed rules governing the role of General Faculties Councils, but he says the U of A is "generally very positive" about the Act.

While he's positive about the Campus Alberta philosophy, though, Owram says the province still needs to address capacity issues. "The Act doesn't in itself resolve the issue of capacity, which is a resource issue. Campus Alberta is full," he said.

But Oberg says the move will make post-secondary education more accessible to more students.

"When you talk accessibility, the students at Lakeland or in Lloydminister or at Blue Quills College in St. Paul are not going to come into Edmonton to take their degrees," he said. "This gives them the ability to better their lives, in the grander sense."