Play Dough Policy Making in Alberta's Advanced Education Ministry

September 18, 2014 Stephen Murgatroyd
We have in Alberta a government that cannot focus, manage or build partnerships and trust. This has never been more evident than it its handling under the current Minister of its post-secondary education portfolio.


Thomas Lukaszuk is the Deputy Premier. He was put into Advanced Education to replace a Minister who objected to cuts to post-secondary education and was not seen to be “playing the team game” – ironic for a government which, as a team, is dysfunctional. Even though institutions had been promised a 2% increase in base budgets, Lukaszuk cut funding by 7.3% and also indicated that the post-secondary institutions could expect two years of zero – a total cut against known cost rises of 20% over three years. Thus a plan for +2 became a plan to cut 9.3% from the plans the colleges and universities had developed for 2013-14. At the same time tuition fees were frozen. Play dough time.


Lukaszuk also indicated through draft mandate letters that the role of post-secondary educational institutions would be much more directly tied to commercialization of research, skills education for the labour force and a neoliberal agenda for learning. The term “mandate” (implying enforcement) was later changed to “letters of expectation” (non enforceable). He also required a greater degree of collaboration and integration between them as part of Campus Alberta. At one point he talked about these requirements being a red line. He later backed off, permitting the institutions to offer their own letters for his subsequent finalization and approval. However, the Minister was clear that he expected a reduction in duplication and a sharing of “back office functions”. Play dough time.


Indeed, he allocated $10 million to the University of Alberta to be the “hub” for the sharing of back office functions. Rather than being compulsory, as originally intended, it is now voluntary.  Play dough time.


He also announced that a new Institute would be established – something that had been recommended by the Premiers Council on Economic Development.  This would focus on commercialization of research and channeling in a focused way the innovation agenda of the Province, to be pursued in partnership with the Universities. The University of Alberta had pushed for such an Institute.  With an initial budget of $160 million, the Institute will focus R&D on commercial challenges and commercialization. It also looks like it will be a way of rationalizing Alberta’s innovation system (yet again). Play dough time.


Today the Minister announced an additional one time allocation of $50 million to universities and colleges across Alberta to help them cope with pressure of growth in enrollments.  First we cut base funds and then we allocate one time funds. Play dough time.


It is not surprising that University Presidents and academics, not to mention their Boards, are confused by the play dough strategy of the Government. They don’t sense a plan, any coherence or consistency. Its “wham-bang, thank you man!”. I have been using the term play dough policy making, since you never know what shape the policy will be next. As one colleague I mentioned this too said – at least play dough doesn’t stick to your hands”, which is what Thomas Lukaszuk hopes for, I suspect.


What is at stake here, apart from the fact that there is no trust between institutions and government or within institutions, is the future of the Province’s links between research and innovation and our economic future. The more Lukaszuk the less confidence we have in this relationship.



A play dough way of making policy – now you see it, now you don’t – is no way to run a government. Its no way to treat students. It is no way to treat some of the brightest minds in the Province. The Premier needs to act - but she wont.

Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.
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