Talk of new research focus causes unease at universities
The government wants the province's universities to get on board with its economic diversification agenda - and make more money - as it eyes a potential restructuring of the $2.9-billion post-secondary sector.
But the government's intentions are ringing alarm bells among opposition parties, academics and students worried about the universities' independence and the fate of programs that provide little financial spinoff.
Earlier this week, Premier Alison Redford shuffled her cabinet, adding the responsibilities for Enterprise and Advanced Education to deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk.
Redford said she made the move because the government wants to see applied research at post-secondary facilities focus on economic development and diversification.
In an interview Wednesday, Lukaszuk said the government "most definitely" intends to take a greater role in determining university research priorities because a "return to the taxpayer" is a priority.
"Post-secondary institutions, not all but many of them, will have to view themselves perhaps through a different mirror. They will have to see themselves as integral parts and perhaps enablers of our economy," he said.
In the 2012-13 budget, the government earmarked $275 million for research, innovation and technology commercialization.
Lukaszuk said everything is on the table as he examines post-secondary education, including the current governance model and streamlining of programs. The change comes as the government warns it is looking to cut costs in its March 7 budget.
"If there are any levers I have in the ministry that would encourage collaboration, which would mean savings to the taxpayer and enhancing the experience of the students, I would never hesitate to use those," he said.
The University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, University of Lethbridge, University of Alberta, Grant MacEwan University and Athabasca University all declined or could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
In a written statement, U of C president Elizabeth Cannon said the institution "has many successes in translating our research into benefits for the economy and society, as well as providing great opportunities for student learning. We look forward to sharing these with the minister."
But Rob Sutherland, president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, said academics are worried the government approach could translate into misguided micromanagement.
A focus solely on "applied research" that supplies short-term results misses the importance of basic research and academic work that leads to long-term economic success, said the University of Lethbridge neuroscience professor.
"Universities are not just research institutions," said Sutherland, whose organization is the umbrella group for faculty associations at the U of A, U of C, U of L and Athabasca.
"There's a huge payback from a university education. The amount of tax dollars that flow in from people with university degrees and higher education is remarkable."
Liberal MLA Kent Hehr said he fears increased government control of universities will be coupled with less provincial funding.
"It sounds to me like they're going to directed program funding, and only fund certain institutions that have immediate job opportunities. To me, that's a concern.
"We've always seen the university system as a place that people can go to continue learning a broad range of subjects," he said.
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said there is already widespread concern about the spring budget within post-secondary institutions and the government's stated focus raises particular fear in areas such as arts and humanities.
Lukaszuk said there will still be room for pure academic pursuits and studies in areas such as arts and fine arts.
"There is a great deal of value in pursuing studies that don't have perhaps direct economic impact but indirectly they also do.
"They often contribute to quality of life," he said.
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