Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Alberta Provincial Budget and Truth Seeking

Premier Notley signalled yesterday that the financial situation she inherited on Sunday afternoon when she became Premier was not "as advertised" either during the election campaign by the outgoing Wildrose Prentice Government or as documented in the Provincial budget. "We have already found a few skeletons in the closet" said Brian Mason, House Leader, "and this is before we have done a deep dive into the financial situation". Quite.

Some have dismissed this as "the NDP trying to lower the already high expectations". I dont think so. This new government is developing a habit of telling the truth. We had all better get used to it. It will be a new experience.

Almost all of our Universities and many colleges are in debt. You wouldn't know it from anything that was said either during the budget or by reading the financial statements associated with the Provincial budget. There are many other activities which are underfunded relative to their legal obligations - look at the whole range of disability measures and supports established by law and the available budget for them. Alberta has a substantial fiscal problem.

We are not delivering the level of service either required by law or expected by Albertan's, especially those lured here by the promise that Alberta would be a great place to "work, live and play". This was the basis of Prentice's "look in the mirror" comment. While inept politically, he was saying that the expectations of service we all have outstrip the ability of the Government to fund these services.

So how come we didn't know? More significantly, how come politicians on all sides of the house didn't know? What's missing from our system of government that leads our new Ministers and Premier to be so surprised?

Some clearly did know that things were not all that they seemed. Our financial public servants in treasury know what they are doing. I worked with them and they are very clear and very focused. Within many departments, the financial analysis and cost analysis are thorough and [generally] well done. Budgets are built carefully with a great deal of internal scrutiny. But we never get to see this detailed work. Published business plans pass through a political filter before being released and do not contain the detailed assumptions behind the financial analysis that leads to the budget. Nor do they contain a thoroughgoing risk analysis which looks at the risks of these assumptions.

Our Auditor General is a very decent man. Thorough, thoughtful and highly regarded in the audit community - we are lucky to have him. But his team can only look at so many things each year - in March 2015 he looked at school attendance in the Northland's school division (unacceptably low), at ESRD's oversight of certain activities and several other specific things. What he did not do was to report on the overall state of Alberta finances. Too political. But this is what we need.

In fact, I suggest we need three things to improve our collective knowledge of our current state on the financial side of Government:


  1. We need an independent office of budget responsibility. This would look at the budget proposals by government and assess these against the actual activities being proposed and see if the implicit assumptions make sense. Most governments now have an independent office of budget and I think the current state of affairs suggests we need one too. It would take the budget proposal, review it and offer an independent assessment of its reasonableness and risk. You can see the terms for such an office here - this is the UK office for budget responsibility.
  2. We need a whistleblower protection arrangement for public servants. When they know that what is being said in public (e.g. there will be no impact on front line services from budget reductions in education) they can blow the whistle and share their analysis through a system of whistleblowing (e.g. by reporting their concerns to the office of budget responsibility) and not fear consequences. Notice I am not suggesting they call David Staples or Paula Simons at the Edmonton Journal - but that a mechanism is established to enable truth telling. Take a look at the OECD's review of whistleblower protection arrangements - its here.
  3. Finally, we need to develop further the work on results based management started by Doug Horner as Minister of Finance. While this will take some time - the first round of this work showed just how far we have yet to go - we each need to know that we are getting the outcomes we are paying for. Too much of the funding in government is focused on process management and not enough focus is paid to outcomes. Budget development should begin with strategic intention (what are we seeking to achieve in the long-term?), then document the implications of this strategy in terms of outcomes (what specific things will we achieve when) and then show what is needed to achieve these outcomes (money, people, infrastructure, time, supports, etc.).  We also need to know more about the risks of the plan - especially financial risk. Showing results based budgets and risks assessments will give us all a more honest view of the situation.


Public servants have lived through a difficult time since Lougheed passed the mantle to Getty. There has been an erosion of confidence and a culture of fear - heightened under some regimes (Redford, for example), but ever present. We have some very able and capable public servants. They live and work in a culture that has been agnostic to evidence, reluctant to hear analysis and relentless in prosecuting those who spoke truth to power. Fear not evidence and analysis have dominated their work for too long. We need to build a culture in which the work of public servants are valued not vilified, sought after not rejected out of hand.

I would also like to see Premier Notley and her small team spend time spelling out the situation to Albertans. Dont wait until you have "solved all of the problems". Go out and show us the situation - "sell the problem, not the solution". We can all then help with the solutions.  Crowdsource solutions through collaborative, participative networks. You can do this in a way that our previous Governments could not.



Monday, May 25, 2015

Thinking About Our Schools

Schools shape our future as a society. They are the bedrock of a community – a place in which all of our futures are nourished and developed. A place where skills are taught, enabled and encouraged. A place where a young person discovers their passions and concerns and is encouraged to develop. We should all care about what happens in schools, even if we do not have children attending them. One of those kids stood at the bus stop with baggy jeans and a funny hat may well become your pension fund manager just a few years from now. Others will run businesses that will hire your granddaughter or work to ensure our planet survives the onslaught of climate change.

But there is something wrong with our schools. They are burdened with too much direction about what they should teach – too many curriculum objectives, too many politically correct imperatives and too many instructions for our instructors. They are held accountable but are not given the tools for the responsible tasks they are given. They are subject to high stakes testing where students, on a single day, determine the fate of the school and its teachers. They are vulnerable and stressful. They are permanently failing to deliver to all of our expectations.

We also do not treat our teachers as true professionals. They are given limited scope for independent action – as if we do not trust them, despite their years of training, to do the job entrusted to them. We disdain their professional development activities and scoff at their summer vacations. We do not show them respect when, as they must do, they tell us that our son or daughter is not the paragon of excellence we thought them to be and that they are struggling. 

We also see schools as a preparation for something else – for work, College or University – rather than places of learning in their own right. In fact, as one keen observer has noted, much of schooling is seen as a preparation for the work of a few – those who go to University - and is not, therefore, a great place for those for whom the trades, or creative arts or community service or retail is their chosen destination. We therefore teach, through our structures, large numbers of students to live with failure.

It is time for a radical change. Our schools need to do more to help our students be part of the solution to the problems our communities face – homelessness, poverty, isolation of the elderly, climate change, driver irresponsibility, the growing challenges of obesity and early onset diabetes, to name just some. Our schools also need to become less focused on being the pathway to post-secondary education and more focused on developing the skills which would enable all students to be life-long learners at any level and at anytime.

We need to counter the view that schools should narrow their focus to the basic science, mathematics, literacy and technology subjects and instead encourage a richness of personal learning which involves creativity, emotional intelligence, physical education, wellness and social skills  as well as the more usual subjects.  Creative diversity is a better bet for our future that a focused insistence on just a core. All need literacy and numeracy, but the development of these skills needs to be based on authentic and engaging learning activities.

We should reduce our division of knowledge into subjects and focus more on real world problem solving for authentic audiences where students are asked to contribute directly and in a meaningful way to the solution of problems facing their community. By focusing on project based work, the need to learn and develop skills normally associated with our “traditional” subject areas will arise naturally and be driven by student engagement rather than Provincial requirements.

We should empower and enable teachers to determine large “chunks” of the work their students do, rather than directing them with curriculum requirements – one Grade 9 science Provincial curriculum has over 260 objectives which teachers “must” complete during the year, 60% of which are likely to appear on a Provincial Achievement Test. This is pure nonsense, driven by the demands of post-secondary institutions rather than the learning needs of students. If we give schools back to the teachers, we should indicate the competencies at a broad level which students need on leaving school and let them, as professionals, determine the best route to these outcomes.

Finally, we should accept that teachers are best place to assess their students and reduce the focus on standardized, annualized, aggregated, average test results and focus instead on frequent, systematic and focused teacher assessments as the basis for pupil evaluation.


Our schools and the curriculum which informs their work were designed for nineteenth century education for an industrial world. It is the twenty first century and an age in which knowledge rather than industrial systems drive our economy. Our schools need a transformation – they need to be part of the future, not stand apart from our time or our destiny. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dear Minister Sigurdson

Dear Minister Sigurdson

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Innovation, Advanced Education/Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour. You will have the longest Ministerial title in cabinet, and all sorts of issues to deal with. You will do it well. I am sure.

You have many challenges. Some of our Universities and Colleges have substantial financial problems with at least one being technically bankrupt and unable to see a way of ever balancing its books.

But this is a symptom of a larger problem: higher education is changing quickly around the world and we are not responding effectively to these changes here well.

In 2013 Janet Tully (a former public policy civil servant in our own Advanced Education ministry) and I wrote a book about these changes and what we need to do about them. A copy is on its way to you – but you can get a sense of the thinking here.  I am also presenting this coming Friday some more ideas along similar lines at Canada’s conference on innovation for universities and colleges (see here) and working with UNESCO on ways in which higher education could do more to have an impact on equity in our society.

There are some truly excellent things happening in Alberta’s college, university and polytechnic sector but the governance of the sector is broken and the leadership is “stuck” trying to second guess what the Government will do to it next. There is a lack of trust in Government, a lack of collaboration in the system and a lack of focus for the work of the system as a whole. We do some things well – transfer credit, quality assurance, program development – but we have created a competitive, dog-eat-dog kind of system which is the antithesis of what is needed at this time.

As with schools, it is time for a cold hard look at the system – something I did with others in 1991-2 when John Gogo was Minister of Advanced Education. I think we need a focused, expert panel to respond to these three questions:

Given the infrastructure in place and the kinds of work our colleges, universities and polytechnics are doing – what opportunities exist to dramatically improve collaboration, innovations in pedagogy and improved learning outcomes from our system?

Do we have the most appropriate form of governance for our colleges, universities and polytechnics? Can we reduce the complexity of Governance and increase public assurance?

What should be the key elements of a strategy for the future of Alberta’s post-secondary system to 2030 – a strategy that would create direction and purpose, focus and alignment and establish clear expectations for our institutions? This would enable medium term planning and funding against a system strategy which took account of the different roles each of our colleges and universities have.

I can think of three strong members of this panel – Sir John Daniel (formerly Vice Chancellor, the Open University, but at one time Vice President Academic at Athabasca University), Dr. Ross Paul (formerly President University of Windsor, but a long time administrator here in Alberta), Dr. Harvey P. Weingarten (formerly President of the University of Calgary now President of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) – any one of whom could Chair this group. A really creative and powerful entrepreneur who are truly engaged in innovative teaching, like Dr. Sean Wise from Ryerson and a very focused and thoughtful leader like Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo.

Take your time. Some things will be urgent – like what to do with Athabasca University – so deal with them. But don’t rush the big stuff. Better to get it right eventually than to make decisions quickly that you will come to regret. Spend time listening and seeking to understand.

Putting this all together will be tough. But you are not alone. A large number of very able people are “in waiting” to help and support. Ask for their help. Encourage a period of trust-building and conversation focused on collaboration, innovation and change all aimed at improving performance. Alberta’s system is not broken, but it is not healthy either. Your job is to restore its health by restoring trust and collaboration.

There are also some challenges in the innovation system - something I also worked on for over a decade with several Deputy Ministers, ADM's and others. There is a review of AITF underway and there needs to be a refocusing of a lot of this work. One of your predecessor had an expert panel look at the system, but predetermined some aspects of the findings before it started. You need to take a fresh look, especially given the commitment of your government to accelerate the diversification of the economy. 


You will have a lot to think about. Congratulations and sincere best wishes.

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBPsS FRSA

Dear Minister Eggen



Dear Minister Eggen

Today you accepted the challenge of being a Minister for Education in Alberta in a new combined Ministry which embraces all of our schools, culture and tourism. You are indeed most welcome in this large and daunting portfolio, though right now you must be somewhat overwhelmed with the challenges ahead. Here I will focus on the education and our school system.

There are many challenges, but the key to them all is the challenge of rebuilding trust. Few who administer schools, colleges or universities trust Government to either listen or do the right thing. There is a long history of the Government saying one thing and doing another. For example, saying that they would end the practice of Provincial Achievement Testing (PAT’s) and then not doing so, but using a sleight of hand to make it look as if they were doing so. On curriculum reform in schools of saying that they would engage teachers as a profession in this work, but then imposing on them solutions that come from elsewhere (e.g. “Math Facts” as part of the Grade 3 SLA’s).

Rebuilding trust and finding opportunities for genuine collaboration is your number one challenge.
This requires you to change the culture of your Department, which may in turn require significant changes in leadership and new relationships. You need to see the Alberta Teachers Association not as a Union, but as one of the world’s leading professional bodies in education. See them as partners in the task of creating a Great School for All. Involve them as partners in real decision making, not just as members of symbolic consultation bodies that have little if any impact on decisions, actions or process.

Spend time with Alberta schools Boards. They are locally elected as stewards and trustees of our schools – the hub of our communities. Understand their role and make sure that they once again have clarity and understanding of their important role in our system and that many of the opportunities to sustain and develop our school system depend on them. Listen to them. Engage them.

Deal with some issues which are “festering” messes in the system. The Diploma Examination needs to change, but the changes being proposed by your Ministry do not align with the educational goals of our schools and are designed as a new form of provincial statistical performance analysis rather than as an affirmation of learning. Stop this work and start again. You do not have a lot of time. It is urgent. Use the ATA and the Alberta Assessment Consortium to help you. Similarly, the Grade 3  SLA’s are a messy, poorly thought through dogs breakfast. The ATA and the Alberta Assessment Consortium can help you (and were helping, until a clique inside the Ministry made decisions without consulting anyone which threw a monkey wrench into the plans.

You also need to encourage the expansion of the very good work that is going on called High School Redesign. This work encourages high schools – some 200 of them – to experiment and innovate with flexible approaches to learning. There are some wonderful school-led developments taking place reflecting the best of what schools can do. Support and expand this work.

One more thing you need to address urgently: the plight of those students in our system with special needs. You will already know that we have too many under supported special needs students included in our classrooms. Ask to meet with the ATA’s specialist council on Special Needs to understand the complexity of this problem. Look at best practice in school systems elsewhere. Develop an ideal statement of what should happen and compare what is happening in practice with that ideal. We need more adult supports in schools; more specialist help available to schools more often; more practical supports for teachers working with special needs students. It is a significant and substantive issue. Take your time, but see this as a priority.

There are hundreds of other issues – curriculum redesign, public assurance, money, teacher preparation, research in education, staffing within the Ministry – but rebuilding trust, dealing with inclusion and working on the Diploma/ SLA’s are urgent. For all other issues its time to ask for help.

Premier Wynne asked for help. She asked a small group of international educational experts to look at what was happening in Ontario and suggest to her the actions her Government should take to sustain Ontario’s position as one of the leading school jurisdictions in the world. You should do the same. A small expert panel – Pasi Sahlberg, Andy Hargreaves, Simon Breakspear, Dennis Shirley, Pak Tee Ng all highly respected and all known Alberta well – could help you answer these five questions:

  1. What do we need to do to build genuine collaboration and trust across our school system to improve performance, rebuild trust and truly engage with the profession?
  2. What role should the Ministry of Education play (if any) in terms of curriculum development, assessment and public assurance? What is their role in relation to that of school boards, parents, the profession and other groups?
  3. In terms of public assurance, can we look at innovative approaches to ensuring that Albertan’s are getting a strong return on their investment in our schools, that we have an evidence base for continuous improvement of our schools and school system and that we support engaged learning?
  4. How should curriculum development occur in Alberta, given our commitment to change in line with Inspiring Education and our commitment to developing great schools for all? Do we need to refocus the Ministerial Order, change the approach, change who and where this is being done? Shouldn’t the profession own this work far more than it does at this time?
  5. What is the one thing we can do to stimulate system-wide innovation in our schools? For example, Ontario has a powerful collaborative program which funds teachers to achieve specific outcomes through innovative projects which are then shared widely across the system – you can read about the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program here. It is like a focused, lower cost version of AISI. It is producing truly creative outcomes which are effectively shared with others across the system.


An expert panel which knows Alberta and cares about the work could help you look with “fresh eyes” and renew the confidence in direction for the work you need to do.

Putting this all together will be tough. But you are not alone. A large number of very able people are “in waiting” to help and support. Ask for their help. Encourage a period of trust-building and conversation focused on collaboration, innovation and change all aimed at improving performance. Alberta’s system is not broken, but it is not healthy either. Your job is to restore its health by restoring trust and collaboration.


You will have a lot to think about. Congratulations and sincere best wishes.

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBPsS FRSA

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Premier Notley

So I got this Alberta election dead wrong. I misread the anger and lack of trust in the Prentice government. I didn’t count on the PC’s being so incompetent or inefficient; I admired Rachel, but didn’t believe that they had an efficient vote getting system to get the vote out – they did. So it is over and we await the arrival of the NDP Government under Premier Notley – the fourth Premier in a year.

I was shocked at Prentice last night – walking away (“taking his bat home”, as we would say in Yorkshire) so fast. A sign of the arrogance that dominated the PC’s in these later years. He both quit as leader and as an MLA, minutes after winning his seat (also insulting to the electorate). McIver will be interim leader and this will mark the start of the end for this party – there may be floor crossings to the Wildrose, now the Official opposition.

So now the work begins. Rachel has a real challenge in shaping a cabinet. Go small is the first message – you don’t need a large cabinet, you need an effective one. Don’t rush this work of choosing Ministers – the entire future of the NDP government depends on it.  There are real concerns that the NDP will rush into policy decisions before getting their heads around the facts and the real “on the ground” situation. Listen to the public servants and rebuild the public service. Separate the public service from the political roles of Ministers – lets get back to solid, independent, thoughtful advice rather than public servants trying to second guess Ministers and living in fear.

They need a budget – we don’t have one. This is the second test for Rachel – the first being the Cabinet choices she makes. We know that math is hard, but she has to get it right this time. She has a plan – but she needs to provide this at a level of detail the NDP are not used to. It will be the most scrutinized budget in Alberta history.

Then she needs to begin the work of reform. Institutional reform, reform of the innovation system and a real look at the health care and education systems (especially post-secondary). Focused, considered and imaginative is what this work needs to be.


So be ready for an interesting few months. She is one smart lady. She will be a great Premier if (and only if) she can build a great Ministerial team..

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Doug Goss, Rejection and the Fear of Failure in the Alberta Election

For a small group of corporate executives to put on public display their ignorance and small mindedness was quite something, but that it was happened in Alberta on Thursday. Doug Goss – who has done sterling service for the University of Alberta, for NAIT and for charities in Alberta – and his colleagues said: (a) they can’t afford any new taxes since it will mean that they have to lay off staff and consider their business future; and (b) that new taxes would mean that they would have to stop their donations (which earns tax relief) to the Children’s Hospital or other good causes. This is both nonsense and very revealing.

The evidence is in that raising corporate taxes – something the majority of Albertan’s support – jobs are not killed but gained, just as they are when the minimum wage is raised. Further, the evidence is also clear that such threats as are implied by Doug Goss and his Gross’d Out group rarely come to pass. When the oil companies threatened to leave Alaska when the State Government raised their royalty rates and taxes for corporations to support community development the noises were just the same. The “sky is falling”. After the changes were made, more oil companies came to Alaska and none left.

Even Danielle Smith (she of many political parties) though that this kind of nonsense would backfire. In a tweet on Friday she suggested that the Doug Goss statement “my gut is telling me that this press conference might not be a good idea”. Setting aside that this was her brain not her gut, she is right.
All of this about the fact that the PC’s are not used to rejection and alienation. They are suffering the shock of rejection (“but I thought people loved us…you mean they don’t”  and “why don’t they trust us…we have always been so nice to them”) and fear of failure.

According to my sources inside the party, they are still confident that they will win on May 5th – they have the best vote getting out machine and the best position in so many ridings from a logistic point of view. What will change this is if a large number of people vote. The more that vote, the less likely the PC party are to retain power – the fewer that do the more likely are to be in Government for another 4 years.

Some well-known PC Ministers will lose – Gordon Dirks (he who can build schools all on his own and can move mountains, apparently) and Jeff Johnson will lose.  Formerly PC safe ridings will fall to the Wildrose or the NDP. Edmonton will go largely orange (though my bet is that Thomas the Tank Engine Lukaszuk will win again in Edmonton Castle-Downs), but there will be a PC Government on Wednesday.

Just in case I am wrong, I am developing a list of the Top 10 Curried Tripe recipes (see last blog for why). Here is one!


Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Notley Crew

There is no doubt that Rachel Notley is a smart, able woman who would make an outstanding Premier of Alberta. She is an effective communicator, a woman who is committed to principles which are in tune with the growingly progressive Alberta and is able to command respect. She is not going to Premier when we wake up on May 6th.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that the NDP is still not a powerful, fine-tuned and well-oiled political machine that can get voters to the polls. Opinion polls count for nothing on polling day – who shows up does. Getting the vote out is everything. The NDP can do this in Edmonton and certain other ridings, but not across the Province.

This hints at the second reason she will not be Premier. The strength of the NDP in rural Alberta matters for overall victory and it is not there. The PC’s strength does not come from the cities but from the rural parts of Alberta. Unless something remarkable happens, rural Alberta will split Wildrose and PC.

Finally, and this is sad to say, the challenge Rachel has (and certainly the Wildrose and Liberal Party has) is that there is no bench strength in the party. The Premier does not run Departments – Ministers do. Can anyone name 18-23 NDP candidates who would make outstanding cabinet members? Not me. David Egan would make a fine Deputy Premier and Treasurer. After that…(well there is Brian Mason, of course - but no one is really sure where he belongs....health, social services or (just for the sake of irony, given his past life) transport.

What will happen is that there will a (much reduced) majority PC Government with a strong NDP official opposition and a larger Wildrose rump. Gordon Dirks (Calgary) and possibly Jeff Johnson (Athabasca) will lose their seats and cabinet roles; the Alberta Party will win one seat in the house; Premier Jim Prentice will look humble, change some minor things in the budget (e.g. charitable tax relief), but carry on as if nothing had happened. He will get his mandate. Corporate money will have secured the vote and Alberta will continue its roller coaster ride on the backs of the middle class, public servants and working poor. The rich will get richer and then leave Alberta – as they have always done.


If I am wrong I will be delighted. If Rachel becomes Premier I will eat a plate of curried tripe. If David Swan becomes Premier I will eat all the tripe in Canada at one sitting. It will be an interesting election day, but don’t hold your breath and don't order that tripe just yet!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Our Little Election in Alberta

This Alberta election matters. It matters because we have an opportunity to press the “reset” button on what kind of Government we want, what kind of public services we want and what strategy we want to collectively pursue for the common good.

Some are getting excited by polls. I am not. I have been around for some time – indeed, I am so old my blood type has been discontinued and I have to put a deposit on a boiled egg in the cafĂ©. Here’s why I am not excited. While there is both a sense of disaffection with the longest serving democratic government on the planet (Singapore is not a social democracy – I was just there) and a sense that there may be a realistic alternative, the polls don’t tell us who will turn out.

Voter turn-out is very low in Alberta – less than 55% of eligible voters bothered to show up the last time around. The last time we passed the 60% number (and then just by 0.2%) was in 1993. For some elections – 2004 and 2008 – we haven’t been able to get much more than 40%. My best guess is that the lower the turnout, the more likely the PC’s are to retain power. The higher the turnout, the more likely there will be an upset.

It is also early. Polling is on May 5th (just two days before the UK election, which is a wildcard election – a coalition looks likely and the Conservatives and Labour need allies to secure government). May 5th is seventeen days away. A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks is a lifetime. Seventeen days is almost a millennium. Wildrose Premier Jim Prentice will turn off the charm and get aggressive, Rachel Notley will come under considerable pressure to explain how she will “balance the budget” (as if anyone has to) and the real Wildrose Leader (you know, Johnny Come Lately) will get wilder and less rosier. No one really cares what the Liberals say or do. The Alberta Party – which seems like a party with common sense practical ideas and thought through action plans – still has trouble being heard, though its use of social media is smart.

Alberta does not have a Monster Raving Looney Party, which Britain once had. They had interesting policies like “let’s get rid of the environment – it’s far too big and difficult to keep clean!” or “all Government accountants should ride power generating bicycles to produce energy everyday while doing their work!”. Well, I don’t think Alberta has such a party but reading the PC and Wild Rose manifesto’s and statements, I am not too sure.

My point here is simple. It is all about getting the vote out. Whether you support a party or not, we all need to get everyone in our network voting.


Indeed, I am keen on voting. As a former election agent for the Labour Party in the UK (Cardiff North, 1974) we had a simple statement: “vote early and vote often!!”. Good idea.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The State of Universities in the State

There is a quiet but important scandal brewing in our universities. The symptoms of this scandal burst out occasionally. Most recently at Western (Ontario) the symptom is the $1million a year compensation package paid to its President. In Alberta the symptom is Ministerial statements about the purpose of universities and the need to “rationalize” programming to reduce duplication and to focus more on programs that produce economic benefits. In Britain it is the uncontrolled growth of highly paid neo-liberal administrators who sees to “economitize everything”, leading Warwick University to “outsource” to a third party the bulk of its undergraduate teaching. Similar developments are occurring in New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands. Our universities are in trouble.

Lets go back a step and ask the simple question, pondered by Cardinal Newman in the 1850’s but more recently by Stefan Collini: what are universities for? What is their purpose?

They exist, according to most who study higher education, as places for the pursuit of understanding, knowledge and meaning. In science, following Karl Popper, we used to refer to the pursuit of “truth”, but we now recognize that truth is elusive and only occasionally evident – more often, we are seeking to understand and explain within the limits of current knowledge and tools. This is the work of universities, whether in relation to neuroplasticity or Shakespeare, Keats or biomedical ethics.

Universities are not there to produce “skilled labour” for business. They are not there to “produce” outcomes which match the social and political agenda of the transient Government of the day. They have a longer-term social purpose: to be a hub for intellectual curiosity, evidence based reasoning and sense-making. They are the last place we should expect to see political correctness - they "invented" deviance as a field of practice.

Now we look at what is happening. As Governments systematically reduce their financial investments in universities and place the burden firmly on the capital markets to fund student debt-loads, Governments are increasingly under pressure from business  to produce outcomes and firms and their associations are demanding more from the universities in terms of meeting the expectation of these markets. Capitalism determines content, process and practice,

In the neo-liberal view of the universities they are seen as “knowledge factories” where “innovation” is born and the opportunity for commercialization begins; universities are engines of diversification and the new economy. They are also seen as  “skills factories” which produce the next generation of skilled and intelligent labour, which is why (despite evidence showing that this is a mistake, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his new book In Defense of Liberal Education) the STEM subjects receive so much attention and research investments – “these are the skills we need”. This despite the growing demand from business for critical thinkers, creative and imaginative team players with knowledge and experience of design and systems thinking. Mark Zucerberg, founder of Facebook, was not a STEM student - he was deeply interested in Greek and was pursuing a psychology major when he dropped out.

So as to manage these factories, faculty are sacrificed to the gods of managerialism. The growth of administration in universities over the last twenty years is remarkable, as is the widespread adoption of targets and performance management for teaching, research and grant raising. These non-profit organizations are increasingly mimicking for-profit organizations and seeking to outdo them in their focus on the bottom line. Britain is perhaps the worst case. Professors are hired to boost the citations count for the research funding reviews and, once the reviews are completed, these Professors are dismissed as surplus to requirements (Thatcher abolished tenure years ago). "Brand" is the thing, not brains.

Our Governments don't understand universities – seeing them as part of the economic system, rather than as a harbour of safety for demanding thinkers and scientists in a growingly complex society. Rather than encouraging the pursuit of understanding and evidence based reasoning, universities are being urged to be politically correct and largely silent on major social issues like inequality, poverty, non-sense government policy and social issues. In the new culture of intolerance of dissent, many Professors are being required to sign “gag” orders which insist that they are silent on issues such as climate change, bioethics, biodiversity, First Nations rights or other matters which challenge “government think”. Indeed, many contracts of employment for those hired to teach or undertake research in UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands now contain clauses which demand such compliance. In Canada, faculty members who hold views contrary to those of the majority have often been silenced.

Janet Tully and I wrote a book in 2013 about the future of universities and colleges which made clear that “the future isn’t what it used to be” (it was called RethinkingPost Secondary Education).  Their modus operandi is changing and they must change with the times. We get that. What we did not advocate was a change in the core purpose of the university and the abandonment of principles.

So what can we do? First, we can follow Stanford’s view that tuition should be free for any student whose parents income is less than $125,000. Chile, Finland and Scotland all have tuition free institutions and other Scandanavian countries are considering a similar move. Meantime, tuition is increasing in Canada and Britain (it is now £9,000 a year $17,000 Can in the UK). We may also want to restrict the proportion of overseas students within a Faculty to 15% so as to ensure the availability of places – in some Canadian faculties this figure is closer to 30-40%.

Second, we should see public universities as publicly owned (not Government owned and managed) assets which the community should help shape – let the Governance of these institutions be independent completely of Government and let them be elected by the community, not appointed by Government.

Third, we should fund research in all disciplines, not just those which are seen to be “sexy” for business. Understanding music is as important to society as nanotechnology; drama is as important as dermatology, Nietzche as neuroscience.  We might want to restrict the investment by business in “closed”, proprietary research and increase the amount of research which is “open” and transparent – less focus on patents and confidentiality and more focus on public good.

Fourth, we should reduce the number of regulatory controls and reporting requirements and increase the autonomy of these institutions. This should lead to a reduction in the number of administrators and should enable us to focus more on the core mission: teaching, research and serving the needs of the community. Our University Presidents and Vice Chancellors should be champions of thought and creativity, not slaves to compliant correctness and the virtues of spreadsheets.

Fifth, we should ask universities to develop their own future focused plans which don't seek to “second guess” what they have to do to attract funds. Give block grants committed to over a medium term and then ask the universities how they can create a future which builds a university which meets the needs of scholarship and the community.

Finally, we should encourage transparency, openness, dissent and critical voices. No one is above scrutiny and review by independent scholars – the recent “transformative Alberta budget” (sic), for example, would have been taken to pieces by the economics department in which I studied as a student by now and this would have been widely reported and shared with no fear of recrimination or reprisals. That this does not happen (with the lone voice of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta) shows that “something is rotten in the state” of these institutions.

We are losing the focus and character of our institutions in the name of compliance, correctness and cash. We need them back. We need them now more than ever. It is time for students, staff and others in society to get behind those who dissent from the current neo-liberal view of our universities and start a movement dedicated to returning the public good role of universities to the public.


The developments at Western provide one lit fuse.  Warwick's decision to outsource significant amounts of its teaching must be another. Can we light some more?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Alberta School Boards Tell Parents Truth, While Our Government Obfuscates..

Alberta’s four largest school boards – Edmonton Public and Catholic and their counterparts in Calgary – wrote to all parents last week and laid bare the reality of the claims of the Wildrose Prentice Government to be “protecting front line services” and the quality of education. They are doing no such thing.

With detailed information, the four Boards laid how just how much the Progressive Conservatives have cut per student funding since 2013 – while at the same time, the work of schools has become more complex. These four Boards have the responsibility of managing some of the most complex and growingly large classes in the OECD. In particular, the growth of English language learners, First Nations, Metis and Inuit students and students with special needs as a proportion of the student population has been dramatic. Indeed, these students account for one third of the student body.

Then, the crowning achievement so far of the Wildrose Prentice Government is to build schools without providing for teachers to staff them. This genius idea, akin to building swimming pools without water to fill them or forests without trees, means that the 47 new schools which these Boards will start to be responsible for as they come on stream will each represent a further dilution of resources for the system as a whole. Think about it – staffing growth reduces available resources for all unless additional resources are made available. This government has in fact significantly reduced funding to support the work of teaching.

All this could be avoided by a sensible, equitable approach to taxation and to education. Indeed, if equity was a policy driver, then the kind of double-speak and empty policies being pursued by this Government would look very different (see why here and look at my video here).

The Minister argues that Boards face dramatic choices – they need to rethink how they provide education. This is what Boards actually do all the time and they were in the process of doing so in partnership with their teachers and the Government of Alberta until the latter changed course and went “off planet”.

Alberta has one of the few truly great education systems in the English speaking world. We earned our position the hard way – through serious-minded sense-making by teachers, Principals, trustees and Government working together. All of this work is based on trust. This trust is broken by the actions of this Government and the trust becomes more difficult to restore given the non-sense rhetoric the Government is now using.


Well done the Metro Board chairs for calling-out the double-speak of our Government. Shame of you Government for creating the situation in which they had to.

Take a look at http://www.epsb.ca/ourdistrict/board/about/board-connection/march2015/