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Friday, January 23, 2009

live-blogging/freezing against the fees.

7:48am - I'm standing outside University Hall at the University of Alberta with over 500 students who got up early to protest tuition and residence fee increases. It's freezing cold outside, so it's really great to see so many people out facing the cold and being active citizens!

8:00am - I'm now sitting in University Hall and there's a nervous tension in the air. The Board of Governors are sitting, preparing for their meeting while the chants of "access now!" are coming from just outside room.

8:03am - The meeting has begun and I'm thinking this might be painful to live-blog. The Board Chair Brian Heidecker is now talking about agenda items. I think he might rival Premier Ed Stelmach for charisma.

8:06am - Chairman Heidecker is now praising Barack Obama.

8:16am - Not sure who the Governors of Alberta's largest public post-secondary institution are? Here's a list:

William Cheung
, Gordon Clanachan, Marc de La Bruyère, Brian Heidecker, John Hoddinott, J.D. Hole, Agnes Hoveland, Linda Hughes, Michael Janz, Don Matthew, Janelle Morin, Jay Nagendran, George Pavlich, Gerard Protti, Sol Rolingher, Oliver Rossier, Indira Samarasekera, Bruce Saville, Don Sieben, Ben Whynot, Dick Wilson

4 women, 17 men. Pretty reflective of the Alberta's population, student population, etc, etc, etc...

8:21am - President Samarasekera is now talking about India and CANDU nuclear reactors. Here's an interesting read on that topic (h/t @AB_get_rich).

8:25am - Holy Web 2.0, Batman! Governor Michael Janz is tweeting from the meeting.

8:32am - Provost Carl Amrhein is about to start their presentation to justify this year's tuition hike. Amrhein takes the time to preemptively call the student position 'inaccurate' before starting his presentation.

8:37am - I'm curious how many people in this room find themselves in this category?

8:44am - University VP Finance Phyllis Clark is presenting the 'institutional budget risks.' Just about as exciting as it sounds.

8:49am - GSA President Ben Whynot is schooling the Board Members on the responsibility of Governors towards the institution while starting the presentation from Graduate Students. "Dissatisfaction with current investments" includes funding disparities across departments, hefty differential fees for international students, & lack of access to childcare for graduate students. U of A Graduate students accessing childcare pay an average of +$700 per month (it may be just me, but that sounds like a lot!)

9:02am - Thinking about how difficult it must be for Governors to actually wade through the positions of the administration and the students. How do you tell what is reality and what is positioning and agendas?

9:08am - Students' Union President Janelle Morin is beginning her presentation. Commenting on students' role on the board. "My obligation to highlight one area where the University is falling short" "gaps between students school costs and their expected revenue flow" "tuition is poised to pass $5,000 this year"

9:15am - Morin: Average accumulated debt for a U of A undergraduate student is $23,000. Over half of undergraduate students graduate with debt.

9:18am - Morin: Average earnings of an Albertan with a Bachelors Degree: Men: $70,000; Women $54,000.

Students' Union summary: improve access, improve quality.

9:21am - Heidecker has opened the floor to questions and observations from the Administration and the Board members on the three presentations. Having been to this kind of meeting in previous years, I know the kind of gold mine for quotes this can be. Let's go!

Provost Amrhein - 'Post-secondary education is a shared responsibility between the Government and the people.' Shouldn't the Government be the people?

9:28am - Calling this meeting frustrating would be an understatement. Can someone convince me to run to become the Students' Union Board of Governors Representative? They're all wearing nice suits. Maybe I'd be able to get a nice suit too? I don't think I'd wear a suit. This board needs less 'suits.'

9:31am - Governor Sol Rolingher:
"I made the decision to have a child while in University. It happened. I don't know why." Rolingher then went on to explain that 'it is a herculean task to overcome financial deprivation, but it's part of being on campus and learning.' (rough quote). Keep in mind that he said this while wearing a very very nice business suit. Doesn't it make you feel better that this public board is filled with men of the people like Rolingher?

9:43am - Provost Amhrein: The tuition increase covers salaries and benefits.

From Maclean's:

"According to the University of Alberta’s fiscal statements for year ended March 31, 2007, U of A president Indira Samarasekera was paid $591,000 in salary and benefits. Her Number Two, provost Carl Amrhein, earned even more: $599,000."
9:48am - 4.1% tuition increase passed. 17-3. Barely any debate from the Public Members of the Board. Alumni Representatives Dick Wilson and William Cheung voted for the increase. In 2008, Alumni Rep Ruth Kelly took a stand and voted against the increase.

10:15am - The presentations regarding residence rent increases are done. Good presentations all around. The University is still dealing with massive deferred maintenance costs caused by the cutbacks in the 1990s. Students are facing a 8% increase, giving students a 30%/$1000 increase since 2006 = $220 per month increase since 2006.

10:30am - Governor Michael Janz "the policy of student housing by our provincial government is unfortunate" "concerned that we are pricing students out" "original 6.4% increase in 2006 was supposed to be an emergency deferred maintenance cost. We are facing so much deferred maintenance costs that I'm afraid we'll continue putting the cost onto students" "I'm concerned that this is contributing to an unsustainable levels of costs that we're putting on students."

10:32am - The meeting is still going. Call me a cynic, but I'm going to assume that the rent increase will pass with about the same amount of debate and similar vote tally as the tuition vote. Two and a half hours after the meeting began, life calls and I must depart. Thanks for tuning in!


A said...

I'm there in spirit - I'd be there in photos, but I can't get my camera to work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for keeping us updated Dave!

Anonymous said...

Why does Amrhein make more than Samarasekera?

C.Schulz said...

Who are the three who voted against the tuition increase? Janz, Kelly, and ...?

Gauntlet said...

I had the pleasure of working with Sol Rolinger, and he's a good guy. His specific accomplishments are too many to mention, but let's say that he is successful (thus the suit), and he has used his success to make substantive contributions to civil society.

What the board is inevitably choosing between is having a) higher tuition, b) fewer students, or c) declining standards of education, or some combination of the three.

That reasonable people might take a little from column a shouldn't surprise anyone, or reflect particularly badly on them. It should reflect badly on the province.

Anonymous said...

$23,000 average debt load for undergraduate? I guess it all depends on your point of reference. I graduated with $18,000+ of student debt, but I graduated over 10 years ago.

To keep the math simple, using 10 years works out to be about a 2.5% annual inflation rate. In other words, more or less CPI.

I'm sympathetic to the cause, but some realism has to intrude also. We can make books cheaper - fine, I agree with that. Paying $80-120 for a "revised, edited" version of the same textbook originally written 10 years ago is criminal. We can work to provide more housing - fine, that's a social good that benefits everyone, not just students. But university is an investment that still benefits the individual student more than society itself. Costs have to reflect that.

There might be better cost control if universities were not on a permanent expansion theme. There are no measurable economies of scale (oops, Econ showing) for the UofA to be the size it is, versus the size it was 10 or 20 years ago. There may even be scale diseconomies over a certain size (places like Concordia, Augustana, Lethbridge appear to be able to do more with less).

Lastly, it is bizarre that senior officials with the university (not just UofA) make roughly 2-3x more in salary and benefits than leaders do in any level of government, when universities themselves are for the most part public entities in Canada. And no uiversity chancellor or president has to re-interview for their job every 3-5 years.

Anonymous said...

This province is so strange. Imagine if we could cut the mega-salaries of all the top beaurocrats? I'm not talking about those senior civil servants making 80-120 K/year, I'm talking about the Sheila Weatherall's with 900 K/year and the Carl Amrhein's with 600K/ year.

If those two alone were working for a reasonable 100K/year, the Alberta public purse would save 1.5million every year. You could save that money or hire 15 more well paid staffers with it. Does anyone want to argue that 17 decently paid people couldn't replace the work of these two?

Pseudo-props to Stelmach and crew, at least Weatherall got what she deserved.

How many of these god awful salaries are out there that we don't know about? People bitch a lot about the pay of corporate CEOs but it's clear the public sector is full of its share of overpaid leeches too.

Hopefully we some of that kind of cost constraint in Stelmach's next budget. Chopping uber-salaries is a good way to impress the public Ed, it goes a lot farther than cutting a bunch of hard working middle income earners jobs.

Party of One said...

"But university is an investment that still benefits the individual student more than society itself."

There's far too many intangible externalities to make this claim with certitude.

You "may" be correct if one considers only the financial gains, but how does one calculate the value of, for example, the development of new technologies by well trained university graduates, development that might otherwise not happen? How does one put a figure on lower crime rates, better health (and thus, lower health spending), both of which have been convincingly corelated to higher education?

It's just too simplistic to look at an individual's income vs. the income tax "take" of "society"

The only academically defensible method of restricting access to education is on the basis of ability to think, not ability to pay. Use first year as a way to weed out those who won't really benefit from further education (while still...admittedly cynically...reaping tuition fees), and then make tuition free to those who pass muster.

A said...

Though I have more important, exotic things to be doing (on what is a Saturday afternoon in my neck of the woods) a few responses from a nerd who just can't quit:
Because he negotiated a high salary to start with and has benefited from annual merit, cost of living, and contractually stipulated raises for coming on 7 years, compared to Samarasekara's 4.
C. Schulz:
The three votes against would be Morin (SU), Janz (undergrad BoG) and Whynot (GSA). In 2008, it was 4 against: the 3 students agaim plus Kelly.
Be that as it may, it doesn't stop him from uttering sound-bites of questionable wisdom at events like BoG. I have no doubt that Mr. Rolingher is a good man with a strong work ethic, but his take on student affairs is informed by experiences that are 20+ years old, and from what I've seen, he hasn't seen fit to update that view in light of the 21st century. It hurts his ability to weigh the dilemma of higher education in a reasonable and just manner, IMO. (In the spirit of disclosure I'll also mention that I disagree with his political views in a big way, but think that's slightly beside the point.)
Anon 1 - Ignoring the substance of your argument entirely, I'm just going to clarify your last point as wrong: University officials are reviewed every 5 years. Their contracts expire and are reviewed by a special subcommittee that reports to the Board of Governors, who votes to renew or not renew - for those of us paying special attention, that's the very same body that votes to hike or not to hike student fees.
The proceedings of those subcommittees are, of course, totally confidential.

Anonymous said...

Suits? Really? Dave, I expect better from you. - Roman

Anonymous said...

Students don't know what a protest is. In the sixties and seventies they were brave. They staged sit-in's. They didn't give up so easily. They organized petitions and they knew how to get the attention and sympathy of mainstream media. 500 students protested? What's that to the president who's cozy on a half-mil salary? How come the students aren't demanding accountability from the guy in charge at the legislative building, Doug Horner? Canadians are wimps at protesting. That's the number one reason why our politicians think they can walk all over us.
Marnie Tunay
Fakirs Canada

Anonymous said...

Tuition fees should be doubled - to start. You're the one who benefits from your own education.

Robert G. Harvie, Q.C. said...

I'm a Conservative. I think that education of Alberta citizens is an investment in our future.. but, as everyone (other than perhaps the NDP) understands, balances need to be made.. personally, I would prefer to invest in education, and review expenditures in other areas..

And I wouldn't discount the notion of a significant gas tax increase, and possibly even a sales tax (did I just say that as a Conservative in Alberta).

But here's the rub, Dave - are you and other Liberals going to meet me part-way. Are we going to do some unpopular hard work - telling Albertans they need to pay more and expect less?

The Canadian public is a fat, spoiled, animal that wants for little, but constantly demands even more. We want free education, free health care and no waits to get it, we want police on every street corner, we want no homelessness and complete integration of handicapped persons into the whole of society - all laudable goals.. but it all has a massive price tag - and every year, more and more people line up at the trough and ask for even more.

I attended a local meeting with our Premier a year ago, and he made himself available to a group of "average" Conservatives - not big business types, but teachers, and small business owners, housewives and retired persons.. and he asked, broadly speaking, what was on our minds. Keep in mind this is a Conservative group.

The response.. everyone started demanding funding for this and that.. for their own pet cause.. the immediate thought that came to mind was the quote of John Kennedy, and I thought, what ever happened to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

I don't deny the need for affordable, maybe even free, post-secondary education - but there is a crisis of expectation in our society, and particularly in this time of economic difficulty, it needs to be checked with some sober reality.

So - while I'm one lone Conservative, I'm happy to roll my sleaves up with anyone, Liberal or otherwise, to create good ideas - but ideas based upon the reality that money doesn't grow on trees.

Chris said...

C.Schultz: probably Whynot, the grad student rep.

ch: Amhrein actually runs the university; Samarasekara is merely the figurehead.

Anonymous: that's $23k average debt among the >~ 50% who have debt, so the average debt overall is more like, say, $13k. I've never been able to get an answer to whether that $23k figure includes law, med, and dentistry students, in which case the median debt load of graduating students will be much lower. There's also the interesting question of whether students should view their university education as being worth, say, a Yaris.