Alberta plots rebound after huge budget cuts

University of Alberta president credits data and demographics for revival

October 26, 2021
Bill Flanagan, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta

Two years after having its provincial budget cut by a third, the University of Alberta is on a rebound and headed for growth, thanks to a data-driven restructuring plan, its president has said.

Alberta is in a surprisingly strong position owing to both demographic growth and a hard assessment of where it could cut staff with the least harm to its teaching and research strengths, Bill Flanagan, the university’s president and vice-chancellor, told the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit.

Professor Flanagan, a former dean of law at Queen’s University, took the leadership post at Alberta in July 2020, just as the province was announcing budget cuts totalling some C$135 million (£80 million).

That amount represented about a third of Alberta’s provincial support and about 12 per cent of its overall budget. Professor Flanagan started his presidency by meeting with the university community to gather assessments of the crisis, but he also began immediately implementing the expected 1,000 job cuts.

Professor Flanagan said he got crucial support from a global grouping of top research universities known as the Uniform Initiative – with members that included the universities of Toronto, Sydney, British Columbia, Cambridge and Oxford – that provided him with international comparators that informed his evaluation of where Alberta should focus its financial resources and where best to pare back.

“We saw we were significantly above the norm in the group” in terms of administrative spending, Professor Flanagan told the THE conference. A major part of the solution, he said, involved collapsing Alberta’s structure of 18 faculties and creating three main colleges, with a projected savings of C$127 million a year.

“It provided a very solid foundation on which we could move forward,” Professor Flanagan said.

The university has also been helped by the fact that Alberta has a relatively young population. As a result, Professor Flanagan said, the 40,000-student university can reasonably expect to reach 50,000 students in next five years, aided by a projected 25 per cent growth over that time in the number of Alberta high school students heading to college.

Faculty and staff at Alberta appear less certain about the promised turnaround.

The University of Alberta had a problem with administrative bloat when Professor Flanagan arrived, said Tim Mills, an adjunct professor and assistant lecturer in linguistics now serving as vice-president and acting president of the university’s 4,000-member Association of Academic Staff.

But the changes have loaded more administrative work on to teaching faculty, Dr Mills said. “Whether the changes brought on by the cuts will improve efficiency remains to be seen,” he added.

Jillian Pratt, this year’s president of the university’s 5,000-member Non-Academic Staff Association, said using the language of “great opportunity” was “insensitive to support staff and only serves to further demoralise those left on campus to continue the work of their laid-off colleagues”.

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