by Jeremy Richards
Thoughtful people must not cede all power to politicians and business interests; we must make our voices heard across the full range of professional, social, and civic circles.
(p. 95: Karr, J.R., 2008, Protecting society from itself: Reconnecting ecology and economy, in Soskolne, C.L., ed., Sustaining Life on Earth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p. 95-108)

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tuition caps to go? AU to merge?

Metro News reports that the GoA is considering doing away with tuition caps for post-secondary education. Wow — that would ring in some changes!

In a related article, there is also speculation that Athabasca University might merge with a "larger institution". Done well, the UofA could sensibly merge its MOOC ambitions with AU's distance learning platform, and run it on a revenue-generating basis. But no way should the UofA take on AU if it's just to be a further drain on resources and the operating budget.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Petition for election of AASUA Officers by the membership

A group of AASUA members has launched a petition to change the way AASUA Officers (President, Vice-President, and Treasurer) are elected. Currently the Officers are elected by AASUA Council as part of a slate prepared by the Nominating Committee, which includes other Directors and (in appropriate years) the Association's nominee to the Board of Governors. (Exceptions are constituency committee chairs, who serve ex officio on the Executive Committee, and are elected by their constituency members, or in the case of Academic Faculty, by Academic Faculty members on Council.) The petition would change this process to allow an open vote for election of Officers by the full membership. The intent is to improve the transparency and openness of the senior leadership of the Association through a more democratic election process.

The petition will be considered at next week's AASUA Council meeting (Thursday 26 February, at 2-4 pm in ETLC 6-060). If Council votes to adopt the principles of the petition, then it will be required to change the Bylaws (which requires a ratification vote of the membership) in time to enable election of Officers for the coming 2015-2016 year. If Council does not approve the petition, then a general meeting of the membership must be called to vote on the question; if that vote passes, then a referendum of the full membership must be held to approve the resolution.

There is some history to this: In April 2012, I presented a similar motion to Council. That motion was referred to the Governance Committee for consideration, but to date no motion or action has been returned to Council. The new petition is an attempt to move this process forwards.

The petition reads:
We the undersigned members of the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA) assert the principle that the Association's Officers (President, Vice-President, and Treasurer) should be elected by the general membership, and accordingly call for AASUA Council to approve and arrange for all processes necessary to permit the Association's general membership to elect the Association's Officers for 2015-16 (President, Vice-President, and Treasurer).
UPDATE: The petition has not been listed as an action item on the agenda for tomorrow's Council meeting. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Don't panic Mr. Mainwaring!"

Oil prices are slowly recovering: WTI Crude is at $53.53 and Brent Crude at $62.53 today.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Time for something new?

I wonder if we're kidding ourselves that the modern university should hold to the principles and practices of "traditional" universities? Two things have changed fundamentally that make it very difficult to deliver a "traditional" university education today:
  1. The number of students taking a university degree has vastly expanded (which of course is good, but presents a huge challenge in terms of delivering a traditional style of university education).
  2. The amount of knowledge that must be mastered to even approach the frontiers of a subject is now so large that it is perhaps too much for a basic 3- or 4-year undergraduate degree.
Maybe it's time to accept that people now need longer in the education system to really master the knowledge required to compete in the modern world? Perhaps we should give up the pretense that a bachelor's degree is something more than just an extension of high school, and instead make it exactly that — a 2- or 3-year add-on to high school, with most of it spent learning facts and figures and language? Recognizing that this is now the minimum level of training for anyone to gainfully enter the workforce, perhaps governments would fund it accordingly, as they do now with all schooling through secondary?

Universities could then again focus on deeper learning, with the Master's degree taking on more of the traditional form of a Bachelor's (perhaps with new, non-gendered names?!), and a PhD again being a rarity where real advances in learning are expected to be achieved.

Just a thought.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

More from IS

President Indira Samarasekera is quoted in the Edmonton Journal as saying:
“Give me a break. We have no sales tax. We have no Alberta health premium. We are stealing from future generations. It makes me really upset because this province could be so far ahead.” 
“We are living in a dream world if we think we can carry on by cutting every time oil prices go down and investing only when oil prices go up. You can’t build for the long-term.”
I agree, but I don't think anyone's listening. Or at least, no-one who votes PC.

It's fine to rail against the system as the door slams behind you, but it would have been more "uplifting" to hear such sentiments loudly and persuasively expressed consistently over the last 10 years. In particular, it would have been nice to have seen restraint and careful investment during the 6% years, instead of the frantic rush to mortgaged growth. Are the words "No thanks" not in the vocabulary of senior administrators? How about, "Thanks for the offer of more money, but can we spend it on back-filling, consolidation, and deferred maintenance, not to mention paying off the unfunded liability in our pension plans, rather than that shiny new building with your name on it?"

I agree with a recent commentator that the way forward is to forget the highfalutin aspirations of galactic greatness, and focus instead on providing a high quality traditional university education for our students. Maybe for fewer students, but with better outcomes. Let's start with making sure they are all literate when they arrive (or soon after), then focus on the students who are really here to learn (not just to get a piece of paper — plenty of other places they can do that). A good statistic to use as a target would be the classroom student:professor ratio (undiluted by contract staff* and non-teaching research professors) — surely even a politician can understand that this is an important metric for gauging the quality of education? If reducing the student:professor ratio is made the overriding target to which all other budgetary demands must be subjugated, then we will see better allocation of resources, especially in times of scarcity.

And instead of "innovative" learning techniques, let's go retro and show our students how to learn for themselves (a lifelong skill), instead of feeding the passive receptors that we are churning out today. We could start by halving the minimum number of instructional hours (who set those numbers anyway?), and doubling the amount of homework or lab work. Lectures should be for guidance and inspiration, not force feeding. Labs and study time (an appropriate concept as we enter Reading Week!) are where the real learning occurs.

Then maybe, just maybe, if we showed that we offered Alberta's sons and daughters a real University education, they might be willing to pay for it?

* Not that I question the quality of contract staff, but contract staff are being used as a cheap substitute for academic faculty, and to casualize academia. There should be more continuing appointments available, which could be filled by some of those well-qualified contract staff.

Friday, February 13, 2015

IS begins to speak out

Anticipating her post-departure immunity, President Samarasekera responds to interview questions in the Globe and Mail. She sounds just a little frustrated!
The University of Alberta is a great university but it is not in the pantheon of the greatest universities in the world. That’s an issue.
I guess top 20 by 2020 really didn't pan out.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Massive GoA budget cuts announced

According to the Edmonton Journal, Finance Minister Robin Campbell yesterday announced massive cuts to ministry budgets, amounting to ~9% reductions for the 2015-2016 year. There was no mention of any tax increases.

At the same time, Premier Jim Prentice reportedly started softening up the unions for pay cuts by trotting out the tired old line that workers "need to recognize the severity of the circumstances the province is in, and need to be part of the solution."

The absurdity of this knee-jerk reaction to the fall of oil prices to normal market levels was exemplified by Minister Campbell's apparent ability to predict the oil price for the next two years to two decimal places ($51.24 per barrel for 2015-2016, and $62.17 in 2016-2017). He can even predict it to the nearest dollar three years out ($75 in 2017-2018). It's a shame the Minister didn't use his extraordinary powers of prediction last year to forecast the bursting of the oil bubble. Even more of a shame that he (and his predecessors) didn't recognize the bubble for what it was, and build a sustainable economy for the province that was not dependent on over-priced oil.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dire budget predictions

At a briefing this morning to the GFC Academic Planning Committee on the 2015 Comprehensive Institutional Plan, VP(Finance) Phyllis Clark painted a dire picture for Faculties based on predictions of cuts to the Campus Alberta grant in this spring's budget.

In a scenario based on a 2.2% across-the-board (ATB) salary increase and a 1.5% cut to Faculty and Administrative Unit budgets, plus the newly implemented move to require Faculty/Admin units to cover the cost of ATB and merit, these units will face an effective 5% budget cut if the Campus Alberta grant increase is 0% (widely considered to be the best, but increasingly unlikely, scenario). By some maths that I still do not fully understand, even after asking for a clarification, I was told the Faculty/Admin unit cut was in fact "only" 3.5%.

Similarly, if the Campus Alberta grant is cut by 3%, then cuts to Faculty/Admin units will be 7.5%.

And if the Campus Alberta grant is cut by 5%, then cuts to Faculty/Admin units will be 9%.

Given that a Campus Alberta grant cut of the order of 5% now seems quite likely, these numbers are frankly disastrous — and VP(F) Clark acknowledged this.

It was commented that the Comprehensive Institutional Plan didn't seem to address this dire situation in any meaningful way. In reply, APC was told that in fact there were many plans afoot to deal with this situation, and that administration were actually quite excited about the prospects. It was suggested that perhaps some specifics about these plans should be added to the Comprehensive Institutional Plan (it is supposed to be a plan, after all!) so that the rest of us could share her excitement.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Negotiation rumours

I have not heard anything official about our contract negotiations — nothing has been mentioned at recent AASUA Council meetings. So I was a little surprised to hear a rumour yesterday that opening positions have already been exchanged, and at least one meeting has occurred (reportedly not very fruitfully).

This is the first time that I can remember that AASUA's opening position has not been shared with its Council and members, and progress has not been reported. Up till the last round, even the Board's opening position was made available.

Does anyone else have any information about what's going on?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Oil bounce?

Don't hold your breath, but the oil price is beginning to creep back up again. This is all a bit reminiscent of the 2013 "bitumen bubble" that softened everyone up just before the disastrous spring 2013 budget.