Opinion: Alberta spends less per post-secondary student than other provinces

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In an earlier op-ed , we argued that the UCP’s 10-year blueprint for post-secondary education, Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs, used data on expenditures per student in Alberta that were misleading and inaccurate. We showed that expenditure differences between Alberta universities and their counterparts in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec were not nearly as large (and in one case, smaller) and that the data continued to be used by the government to justify their extreme cutbacks to funding. Colleges in Alberta, on the other hand tend to have expenditures per student much higher than those in the three comparator provinces.

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We stated there — and will reiterate here — that policy should be based on solid evidence. Alberta 2030 and many government documents since have failed to provide such evidence.

Here we dig deeper into our data. Because the lion’s share of post-secondary institutions’ expenditures are salaries and benefits — almost 60 per cent of total expenditures in universities and almost 50 per cent in the case of colleges — and because the many institutions are currently in contract negotiations, this is the obvious place to search for differences between Alberta and the three largest provinces.

Again, we rely on publicly available data from Statistics Canada for 2019-20 for universities and 2018-19 data for colleges (the latest years available in both cases) to allow a more accurate comparison of Alberta with the three largest provinces.

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Consistent with our previous column, we find that Alberta’s universities spend about five per cent more per student on salaries and benefits than in Quebec, and eight per cent more than Ontario, but 14 per cent less than British Columbia. But these data alone do not tell the whole story. In terms of academic salaries — those for professors and other instruction and research — Alberta spent almost 20 per cent less per student than in British Columbia, 10 per cent less than in Quebec, and about the same as Ontario.

Limiting the comparison to only those in academic ranks — basically the professoriate — expenditures per student in Alberta are about the same as Ontario, but about 18 per cent less than in Quebec and almost 26 per cent less than British Columbia. If professors are not responsible for the overall difference in total salaries and benefits, who is? The answer lies in “other salaries and wages” which include those salaries paid to university administration, support staff, et cetera, which are about 22 per cent higher than in Ontario, 26 per cent higher than in Quebec, and 11 per cent lower per student than in British Columbia.

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By contrast, colleges in Alberta pay more in salaries and benefits per student than all of the other jurisdictions, no matter how we slice the data, and sometimes by a wide margin. Again, this likely reflects the nature of Alberta’s colleges which are small and rural, with many having multiple campuses. We reiterate that this is likely the result of the expansion of many of these institutions to promote various social and economic development goals, but this obviously comes with a cost.

Taken together, it appears that Alberta spends less on instruction and more on support and other services than her comparator provinces, at least for universities. The MacKinnon report pointed out something similar, blaming high administration costs for what it reported as higher overall costs per student at post-secondary institutions in Alberta. While a more detailed analysis would be necessary to uncover the precise reasons for these, at least the light is being shone in the right direction.

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Given the Kenney government’s continued cuts to post-secondary education, and the lag in having good data available, it is likely that these differences are amplified today. The key point was, and is, that our data are more recent — and likely more accurate — than those in the MacKinnon report which continue to be used to justify government policy. What is clear, is that Alberta spends less per student on instruction, at least at the university level, than comparator provinces and this has implications for both the recruitment and retention of students and professors in Alberta.

Trevor W. Harrison is professor of sociology and Richard E. Mueller is professor of economics, both at the University of Lethbridge.

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