Alberta plans major growth as oil revenues bounce back

Three years after province cut its budget by a third, leaner flagship university sees a moment to leap; students hope they can make it

October 3, 2023
Edmonton, Alberta
Source: iStock

The University of Alberta is planning a major expansion after a multi-year decline, hoping to pair a steadily rising local population with an even greater commitment to international enrolment.

The petroleum-dependent province cut the flagship institution’s budget by a third as part of heavy retrenchment in 2020 at a time of falling oil prices. With oil revenues now looking more stable, Alberta has the fastest-growing population in a country where high levels of immigration have helped avoid the stagnation plaguing many other developed nations, and the university plans to pounce.

The university’s new 10-year plan envisions boosting enrolment from 44,000 to more than 60,000, with 6,000 of the 16,000 new students coming from abroad.

“This really marks a turning point for the University of Alberta,” said its president, William Flanagan, a professor of law who has led the Edmonton institution since 2020, just as the budget cuts were being rolled out.

Professor Flanagan acknowledged risks in pursuing the expansion, including the ever-present variability of oil prices, the vagaries of international politics, and the federal government’s hesitation to invest heavily in academic science.

But the university is emboldened by the population data – Alberta has 4.7 million people and rising, from just below 4 million a decade ago – and by the sharp contraction in its own administrative staffing, part of 1,000 jobs cut in the 2020 pullback.

The president is also confident that global demand for seats at his university, and in Canada more broadly, remains robust and is spreading to more countries, even as the university charges international students more than four times the C$8,000 (£4,800) annual tuition fees paid by their domestic classmates.

“International students are prepared to make that investment,” Professor Flanagan told Times Higher Education. “They see a lot of value in that, in terms of opportunity for themselves.”

The president of the University of Alberta’s student body, Christian Fotang, shared much of the campus president’s bullishness on the quality and potential of their institution. “This is a great university,” said Mr Fotang, an Edmonton native and senior majoring in biology. “It’s top five in the country, top 110 in the world, here in my backyard.”

But he also has concerns. Edmonton is already confronting housing shortages, and a huge expansion of the university could make that problem even worse, Mr Fotang said. The campus is also short of its own space for students to just gather and study, he said. And that is especially true of facilities for people with accessibility challenges, he said.

In addition, there is a general atmosphere of anxiety and mental health challenges, driven by financial and academic pressures, and exacerbated by the pandemic, Mr Fotang said. International students seem especially troubled, he said.

“It's good to have ambitions, to have a target,” he said of the university’s expansion plans. “But you have to make sure the resources are there to support the students.”

Professor Flanagan believes it can work, noting that international students see great value in Canada, which is generous with post-graduation work rights. Applications to the university have gone up 20 per cent over the past five years, he said.

But the Alberta president also conceded that some key challenges could lie outside the university’s control. One is the perpetual swing in oil prices. “There is a bit of a wild ride when you’re quite heavily dependent on one resource industry that’s highly reliant on international prices,” he said.

Another is global politics. A diplomatic quarrel in recent weeks between the governments of Canada and India is threatening to alienate the biggest supplier of international students into Canada, and Professor Flanagan saw it as a powerful example of the need to keep diversifying the list of countries that supply Canadian universities.

On top of that, Professor Flanagan noted, the university’s expansion plan only works if its research strength grows along with it. And the Trudeau government so far has shown what Canadian academics see as insufficient urgency to fix a funding environment that leaves their country near the bottom of the list of Western nations in academic science output.

“We’re too reliant on immigration for economic growth – we need to be focusing also on research and productivity gains,” Professor Flanagan said. “We’ve been able to be a bit complacent, I think, because we’ve been so successful in attracting really talented newcomers.”

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