I hope this message finds you healthy and well at the end of what has definitely been one of the most eventful, difficult, and stressful school years this university has seen in some time. I know that many of you will continue teaching and working in various capacities over the spring and summer, and I hope you are able to find a bit of time somewhere to pause and reflect on your work and accomplishments over the past eight months. In the face of aggressive government funding cuts, academic and administrative restructuring, and a pandemic, AASUA members have found ways to continue contributing to students, the university, the public interest, and your own families and communities, and you should all feel incredibly proud of that accomplishment.
I hope you’ve all had an opportunity to read the bargaining update (you must be logged into the website to see the update) that we sent out last week. While we continue to bargain in good faith, and are committed to working toward a negotiated agreement, we are aware that members increasingly have questions about what happens if we cannot reach an agreement with the employer. Over the next few weeks we will be sending out a series of messages answering some of the most frequent questions we have received about the bargaining process in general, the specific steps that we need to follow, and the potential outcomes.
NASA and U of A
The Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA) and the employer are about to begin bargaining and they exchanged opening proposals last week. The Board’s opening proposal to NASA contains many elements similar to what we saw in their opening proposal to AASUA. These include a 3% across the board salary rollback, retroactivity in the implementation of salary cuts, salary scale suppression for certain job categories, significant benefit reductions (including introduction of co-pay), and elimination of joint benefits management. The U of A proposal to NASA also includes the elimination of long-standing preamble language referencing the value of support employees, the goal of establishing positive working relationships, establishment of trust between union, staff, and employer, and promoting ongoing information-sharing and consultation on issues of mutual interest.
After extensive media coverage and public attention, the Board informed NASA that they would be revising their opening proposal to no longer include deletion of the preamble and to drop the retroactivity.
Despite the changes, the opening proposal highlights the degree to which the Board's intention in this round of bargaining is not simply to reduce costs, but also to significantly increase management rights while suppressing the unions and eliminating any vestiges of collegiality, collaboration, and consultation at the University of Alberta. The employer's decision to walk back part of the proposal highlights that it is more important than ever for the members of AASUA and NASA to stand in solidarity and push back against the most egregious parts of the employer's proposals. We must continue to do whatever we can to ensure the ability of all staff to continue making a positive and constructive contribution to the decisions that impact the success of the entire U of A community.
Protect Our Future Campaign
I also hope that you’ve had an opportunity over the last few weeks to engage in some capacity with our Protect Our Future campaign against government cuts to post-secondary education. In particular I’d like to draw your attention to our campaign video (watch here), which has been circulating broadly on social media platforms and has now been viewed over 70,000 times. I encourage you, if you have not done so already, to have a look and share it as broadly as possible over your networks. I’m also happy to report that we have now received over 8,300 signatures on our petition and that over 1,200 letters have been sent to MLAs encouraging them to take action against the cuts. Keep an eye on your inboxes, and our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages for those of you on social media, for campaign updates and further actions and initiatives.
Alberta 2030 Strategy
On April 29th the Alberta government released the Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs strategy for the province’s post-secondary education system. The strategy is the result of a year-long, $3.7 million consultation and review carried out on behalf of Alberta Advanced Education by international corporate consultancy McKinsey and Co. As is often the case with this government, the strategy is very long on vacuous corporate buzzwords and very short on details and specifics, but it does point to some general directions that merit the attention of academics across the province.
The most striking feature of the strategy is the complete disconnect that exists between the grandiose terms and language used in its launch and the reality that the government is in the midst of removing over half-a-billion dollars from the system province-wide. There is absolutely no acknowledgement of the degree to which Alberta institutions are struggling to meet their mandates, and no roadmap for how we can possibly implement any new strategy under these conditions.
One of the most significant concerns around Alberta 2030 is the degree to which it references the value of post-secondary education almost exclusively in terms of vocational training and the development of specific skills to meet the needs of today’s job market. There is limited acknowledgement of the role a university education plays in the development of critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, resilience, adaptability, and higher order problem solving—the core skills and ability that will make graduates successful in a multitude of workplace scenarios and as citizens in a free and democratic society.
It is also concerning that the strategy proposes a much greater ability for businesses and the corporate sector to influence courses, research, and programs of study at post-secondary institutions. Specifically, it seeks market input in the development of sector-specific “micro credential” programs, the creation of “the strongest employer, industry and post-secondary partnership environment in Canada,” and streamlining program approval to allow institutions to better respond to labour market needs.
The strategy recommends prioritizing the commercialization of research and recommends standardizing and streamlining intellectual property guidelines and rules across the province. It provides no specifics about what that might look like, but does suggest the “adoption of faculty promotion and tenure policies to incentivize faculty to pursue entrepreneurial activities.” The obvious concern here is that promotion and tenure policies are determined in our collective agreements and FEC guidelines—neither of which should ever be subject to interference from government or industry. It is also extremely concerning that there is so much focus on commercialization of research and no mention at all of social innovation, curiosity based research, or research that contributes to the public interest in general.
The section on governance is also quite concerning, primarily because of its vagueness and lack of specifics. It shies away from the originally rumored intention of creating a single sector-wide board, but still reference a province-wide ministerial advisory council, a coordinating committee for each sector in the system, and a new governance framework “with clear mandates and accountabilities for system- and institution-level outcomes in teaching, research and innovation, and collaboration.”
There were also a couple of potentially good news initiatives announced in the strategy. The first is the strong focus of the strategy of improving accessibility to post-secondary education and, in particular, to strengthen the inclusion of indigenous learners across the system. Of course, achievement of this goal would require a significant injection of targeted funding both to institutions and to students themselves, which the government has given no indication it is prepared to do.
The second positive recommendation in the report is the deconsolidation of the institutional budgets for U of A, U of C, and U of L from the government’s books. This move will give these institutions much more freedom in determining their own revenues and expenses, strategically use their reserves and surpluses as needed, and build long-term financial plans and strategic investments.
The implementation of key elements of the strategy will require significant changes to the Alberta Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). The government has signalled that it will be introducing legislation to change the PSLA and enable other aspects of Alberta 2030 in the fall. As is always the case, it will be critical that we pay close attention to what that legislation looks like, because it will contain all the specifics that are missing from the current plan.
I encourage you all to read through the strategy, and as always, to pass along any questions, thoughts, or concerns you might have about it or anything else.