The ripple effects of the global fossil fuel boom: a view from inside the University of Calgary

Editor’s note: the global boom in fossil fuel production is generating uneven development processes that are reverberating through higher education systems. For example, the boom has fueled the breathtaking expansion of indigenous and foreign university campuses in the Middle East (e.g., King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), Qatar Education City, NYU Abu Dhabi). Canada, the US’ largest supplier of oil (a fact off the radar screen in the current geopolitical climate) is also witnessing a vast economic transformation as an “empire from a tub of goo” (the Alberta oil sands) emerges. The national Globe and Mail newspaper is current running a series of stories on this historically unprecedented development process. This transformation has been praised and criticized from a social and environmental perspective. It is, though, also interesting to see how economic development proceeds (esp., increased revenue) are impacting the Albertan higher education system. Today’s guest entry is by a professor of anthropology (Alan Smart) at the University of Calgary. Professor Smart is an economic anthropologist who mainly works in China. We’ve commissioned this piece after reading an interesting Globe and Mail article (“Will Alberta’s energy boom revolutionize higher education?” January 2, 2008). Given our knowledge of Professor Smart’s ethnographic skills we felt that he had the capacity to develop an informed and grounded commentary regarding the inevitably uneven impacts of this transformation in his own university and province. We also recommend that you look at this commentary by Martha Piper (a former senior university official in Alberta and British Columbia).

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When I read Elizabeth Church’s glowing account in the Globe and Mail (“Will Alberta’s energy boom revolutionize higher education?” January 2, 2008) of the post-secondary sector in Alberta and its prospects, I immediately thought, “that’s exciting, I wish I was there instead of in a university where we continue to suffer from budget cuts and lack of direction”. But then I realized that I was there, the University of Calgary to be specific, in the heart of Alberta’s economic boom, but the experience of the liberal arts faculties bears no resemblance to the gushing prose such as “People will look back at this time and marvel” (Dr. Samarasekera, President, University of Alberta). Many of us at U of Calgary are already marvelling: at how there can be such disarray, budgetary crisis, and abysmal morale in a place where so much money is sloshing around. To be fair, the reports from U of Alberta sound much better than at U of Calgary: Dr. Samarasekera apparently recognizes the importance of liberal arts in the university.

uc2.jpgThe shocking thing is that in almost twenty years at the U of Calgary, I do not recall a period when morale among faculty was lower than it is at present, and that includes during the 23% cuts over 4 years in the early 1990s. The only faculties that seem to be benefiting from our President’s vision are Medicine and Engineering. Some might argue that this is a sign of the corporatization of the university. It might indeed be, but only in the sense that the university concentrates on things that the dominant business community would like to see done, not in the sense that the university is acting like a profit-seeking enterprise. If it were, we might expect to see investment in profit centres at the expense of other units, but it tends to operate the other way around. The Faculty of Social Sciences, with the largest number of students on campus, has a budget that is basically equal to the tuitions paid by its students, even though Alberta policy is that tuitions should not be higher than 25% of the operating budget. Obviously, given this, Social Sciences (and the other core arts and sciences to a somewhat lesser extent) are being treated as a cash cow for Faculties that cannot cover their own costs. One could point to the substantial research funds brought in by Medicine in particular, but this has little positive effect on the university’s financial situation since grant overhead payments are very low in Canada, unlike the situation in the United States. In any case, the usual pattern when a medical researcher has a breakthrough or receives a major grant is that they get offers from other institutions and turn to the administration to say that they couldn’t justify staying without a new lab, additional colleagues, postdocs, graduate students, etc. This doesn’t produce any real advantage to the administration’s budget, unlike the large number of bums on seats in the arts and sciences faculties. Especially when those bums on seats are being taught by sessionals. A sessional being paid $5,250 for a one-semester course with 400 students paying $500 each for that course generates a profit of $194,750, or a return on investment of 37 times. What profit-oriented business would turn down returns like that? Yet, because tuition goes to the central administration without any direct return to the department or faculty offering the course, such courses provide no benefit to the unit offering the course, despite intense student demand. If this is a corporate model, it would seem to be a very dysfunctional corporate model. But I think that it follows a different logic, one based on status. Presidents like to brag about their neurology or cancer treatment or energy research centres, and transferring resources into sexy high profile fields makes it possible for them to swagger when they get together with other Presidents or potential donors, and hopefully step up to a better job before the house of cards collapses around them.

The Province of Alberta must bear its share of blame. Funding per student in Alberta compares quite well with other provinces, apparently. But the lack of understanding and mistrust of universities by the Conservative Party has been so great that most new funds have been tied to particular new programs, projects and buildings that the Provincial Conservatives and their supporting interest groups see as useful. The proportion of university grants that don’t have strings attached dropped precipitously after the election of Ralph Klein. And the problem is that these grants bribe us to do expensive and unsustainable things. There is never quite enough money to do them, so subsequently money has to be channelled from sustainable things to finish off the shiny new building or keep the sexy new program afloat. If we could simply allocate all the money we get from the province and tuitions to the most sustainable and sensible things, we would be in pretty good shape. The amazing thing is that most of these are the things that universities (at least those without massive endowments) should be doing, providing a well-rounded education in the liberal arts and sciences, with a smaller set of appendages in the professions doing the far more expensive but ‘sexier’ things. Instead of being seen as essential, the body of the U of Calgary is being gutted to support a host of showcase programs and projects much larger than the modest financial reality can support. Thus, the ‘fiscal conservatives’ in the ruling Conservative Party of Alberta and the downtown business community (who dominate our Board of Governors) have seduced and bribed us into a fiscally disastrous route. And the answer? Ever more of the same. Marvellous, indeed.

Alan Smart

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