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Academic restructuring at the University of Alberta

Academic restructuring at the University of Alberta

[iStock.com / benedek]

Alberta’s post-secondary education (PSE) workers are reeling from a one-two punch delivered by the province’s United Conservative Party government. First came cuts in three provincial budgets in a row totalling over $400 million, and more to come.

Next came the introduction of performance-based funding which, although temporarily on hold due to the pandemic, will measure PSE institutions’ “performance” against a series of metrics and tie up to forty per cent of operating grants to success in meeting targets. Alignment of enrolments and programs with the labour market as well as linking funding to factors beyond the reach of institutional control, such as graduate income and rate of employment, are possible markers under the model.

The cuts have led to significant job losses and other cost-cutting measures in higher education workplaces across the province, with administrations scrambling to find savings through “transformative efficiencies.” The blow landed hard at the University of Alberta, which bills itself as a “Top 5 Canadian university”, employing thousands of academic, administrative and other support staff responsible for delivering that “top” experience to some 40,000 students annually.

Ricardo Acuña, president of the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA), says the institution is facing the highest percentage of funding cuts as compared to any other in the province, necessitating a drastic overhaul of operations.

“Budget 2021 brings the total cuts to the University of Alberta's operational grant to $170 million since 2019. That is a 25% reduction,” Acuña notes. “It’s causing problems.”

Those problems are being addressed — ostensibly — by the administration’s decision to undertake a massive academic and administrative restructuring driven by an international management consultancy firm, the NOUS Group. Acuña calls the scope and speed of change “unprecedented, with the international consulting firm at the heart of it and advising from the beginning.”

Despite the enormity of the proposed changes, staff have been largely cut out of the process.

“The roadmap for the restructure, we were informed, would be provided by NOUS. The model would be the University of Sydney in Australia, the restructuring of which was also handled by NOUS,” says Acuña. “Neither the AASUA nor the non-academic staff association were allowed participation on the working groups, and we were refused access to any of the advice, benchmark data, or financial information that formed the basis of the plans and financial projections.”

The results of the Sydney restructuring, however, aren’t so easily hidden.

Nick Riemer, a senior lecturer in the English and Linguistics Department at the University of Sydney, and local representative of the National Tertiary Education Union, says the Sydney restructuring has been a massive step backward for academic freedom, collegiality and academic quality.

“You'd be hard-pressed to find any of my colleagues at the University who don’t acknowledge that we are in an environment characterized by permanent management realignment of the basic parameters of our work,” Riemer relates. “We're continually facing restructures, the goalposts are continually shifting and that leads to a general climate of uncertainty, anxiety, and precarity. No one can take the institutional structure for granted, or hope there's some fair chance of an ongoing durable context for their work at the University. Everybody's position is always under threat and the organizational arrangements that really make our work possible are always up for grabs.”

Unsurprisingly, the Australian government had also introduced performance-based funding for universities in 2019. 

Acuña calls the Kenney government’s adoption of such strikingly-similar tactics “ominous.”

“The restructuring at the University of Sydney which was developed and carried out over a number of years also came in response to brutal austerity and defunding of the post-secondary sector by the Australian government,” he notes. “Today those austerity programs continue and the country's universities continue to feel the effects. Universities are shutting down entire programs to deal with the cuts and tuition increases. The observation is frightening: It's like looking down the tracks and seeing what's coming at us.”

Administrators at the University of Alberta are not wasting any time instituting sweeping changes, with back end services already being consolidated across the board: 400 positions have been cut to date with another 600 coming.

“Transactional work is moving out of the department and being placed in cubicle farms, somewhere on campus. They're really focused on economies of scale,” Acuña says. “Naturally, we're concerned about the impact on number of jobs, pay scales, and for job security for academic and non-academic staff. How will it impact student and research services?”

Beyond these changes, however, it is a decision pushed through by the school’s Board of Governors at a contentious meeting last December that is fueling deep concern for traditional principles and processes around collegial governance, academic freedom, and notions of transparent, democratic decision-making. Former AAUSA President Carolyn Sale, who has also served on the General Faculties Council — the University’s equivalent to a Senate — is blunt in her criticism of the decision to consolidate faculties into three “colleges,” each headed by a newly-created administrative layer of “executive deans,” the notion of which had been rejected by the GFC.

“The Board passed a motion … in which it arranged for the colleges to have Executive Deans in the form of ‘Seconded’ Deans. This means that the Board failed to respect the recommendation that came forward to it from the General Faculties Council (GFC), and rejected what it has heard overwhelmingly from the University community — that it does not support the creation of an additional level of senior administration no matter what the ‘Executive Deans’ are called,” Sale declares in her blog “Arts Squared.”

“To achieve its objectives… the Board had to ride roughshod over collegial governance. In so doing, it confirmed what much of the University community has feared from the outset…that this entire process involved a mere sham of consultation and democratic decision-making…” she concludes.

Acuña points to “how problematic it is for a group of political appointees, largely from the corporate world, to amend on the fly a recommendation that was developed over six months of dialogue, discussion, and consideration by the folks on the front lines of the academy.”

If this is not enough, post-secondary education workers across the province are waiting, with trepidation, for another shoe to drop in the form of the McKinsey Report, expected this spring, which will summarize findings and make recommendations after a sweeping review of Alberta’s PSE system by the American management consulting firm.

The announcement last June, mid-pandemic, of the government’s award of the $3.7 million contract to McKinsey & Company sparked concern in the academic community as it followed in the wake of two consecutive austerity budgets that had already shown the government’s hand.

Heather Young-Leslie, an adjunct Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Social Sciences & Humanities Grant Assist Program at the University of Alberta has done a disturbing, deep dive analysis on McKinsey, its intertwined relationship with NOUS, and their philosophical underpinnings to approaches such as “rightsizing” and the corporatization of universities, along with a dizzying array of coded buzzwords including “nimbleness”, “interdisciplinary” and “laser focus”.

Her conclusion: “Whence will come the cost savings UAlberta needs? …from draconian measures, such as vertical cuts, but beginning with cuts of Academic Teaching Staff positions, and downward pressure on the professoriate via managerial mechanisms such as the Faculty Evaluation Committees, algorithms that determine academic performance, and Key Performance Indicators.”

With the McKinsey Report on its way, and further restructuring and cuts looming throughout the sector, the AASUA has joined ranks with other groups to mobilize. That includes supporting the “Stop PSE Cuts” campaign driven by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association, the Council of Alberta University Students, and a variety of local academic and non-academic campus unions.

“Our members here at U of A are angry and want to do something. In particular, we are really riled up about the Board's decision to ignore a recommendation from the GFC. We're exploring our legal options in requesting a judicial review, on the forced decisions on restructuring,” Acuña says.

“It’s very hard to explain bicameral governance, academic freedom, the corporatization and creeping privatization of PSE to the media and public, but we need to try. The public should be concerned about this government’s ideology.”

CAUT has written to the University of Alberta President Bill Flanagan to express concern about the “state of academic governance” at the institution and to urge recommitting to the principle of collegial governance by fully respecting the authority of the General Faculties Council.

“[A]cademic freedom and collegial governance are the foundational values of our colleges and universities. It is therefore deeply troubling to learn of recent academic planning decisions taken by your Board that are contrary to recommendations of the GFC,” states the letter. “Given that this matter implicates important principles of collegial governance and academic freedom, CAUT, in cooperation with the AASUA, will monitor the situation closely and, subject to any additional information you may provide, will consider appropriate actions to take.”

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