by Jeremy Richards
Thoughtful people must not cede all power to politicians and business interests; we must make our voices heard across the full range of professional, social, and civic circles.
(p. 95: Karr, J.R., 2008, Protecting society from itself: Reconnecting ecology and economy, in Soskolne, C.L., ed., Sustaining Life on Earth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p. 95-108)

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rollout of new Agreement language on Copyright delayed — again

Draft new Agreement language relating to Copyright (Article 10 of the Faculty Agreement) was supposed to have been presented to AASUA Council on Thursday "for information", but the agenda item was withdrawn at the start of the meeting with no documents having been presented, with the explanation that the material was not in fact ready for discussion. A draft was apparently discussed at an earlier AASUA Executive Committee meeting, but the details are secret (even Councillors, the elected authority of AASUA, are not allowed to know!).

Incorrect comparator data being shown in eUSRI reports?

It was reported at AASUA Council on Thursday that incorrect comparator data had been used in some eUSRI reports. These data are used to show how eUSRI scores compare to historical data for equivalent-level courses (usually be year), and are used as a relative indicator of teaching "quality" by FECs. It was reported that comparator data from different years had been used, which is a problem because average USRI scores increase from first to fourth year courses. Therefore, if, for example, data for 4th-year courses are used as a comparison for a 1st-year course, this could indicate that the scores are comparatively low (e.g., first quartile, and therefore "bad"), whereas they may in fact fall in the fourth quartile for 1st-year courses, and are "excellent".

Councillors were told that the only way to find out if the correct comparator data had been used was to compare the new eUSRI comparator data to last year's data (which are assumed to be correct).

This is very troubling, and inspires little confidence in a process that many regard as being an ineffective measure of teaching quality anyway. The President of AASUA undertook to take this issue up with the Interim Provost as a matter of urgency.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Whitherleaks update

For some time I have been maintaining an archive of various non-confidential GFC and AASUA documents, and other relevant papers on my Google drive "Whitherleaks", and have included links to this resource in various posts. However, I was recently told that this archive was inaccessible. I checked the access provisions, and I think they may have been changed at some point (whereas I set it up originally to be open to anyone). I've changed the settings to full public access, but I am hearing that it is still difficult to reach, and may require sign-in through Google at a minimum.

I'd be grateful if you could let me know if the site is accessible to you, or if you are having problems. You can either send me a message through this blog (I won't post this correspondence unless it has useful information) or through my normal e-mail.

APC approves 5 market modifiers

The Academic Planning Committee of GFC yesterday approved the five market modifiers previously given the green light by the government. The proposal will now go to the Board for final approval. There was quite a bit of discussion of the proposal, with some student groups remaining opposed, while others supported it. I asked how the specific numbers had been arrived at, and we were told that they were based on benchmarking against fees of peer institutions, although there does not seem to be any uniform process for this, and the benchmarking seemed rather subjective (i.e., "we think we're about #X across Canada, so our fees should be Y dollars").

I also asked about the perception that market modifiers were being used to pay for market supplements of faculty in these programs (because it was not obvious that all the programs being proposed for fee modifiers were inherently expensive to teach). It was confirmed that in some cases the fees were being raised because it was difficult to recruit and retain faculty to teach the programs, but it was hurriedly added that the extra fees were also being used to support bursaries and other program investments (not just salaries), and the Dean of Law in particular described how the Faculty was additionally looking at other sources of funding to support programs (such as external funding). I suggested that it would improve the optics of market modifiers to clearly show how they are just one part of a broader effort to increase funding and program support.

I voted for the proposal (which passed by a large majority), but remain disappointed that funding for higher education continues to head inexorably towards a user-pays model, even as the US is considering free community college access. The market supplement process is an unfortunately necessary response to the GoA's strange attitude to higher education, which seems to be that users should pay (not the government, or at least decreasingly so), but at the same time universities and colleges are not allowed to increase tuition beyond delta-CPI. The result is these slightly bizarre mechanisms to get around these restrictions on a program by program basis, probably wasting more money in bureaucracy than is ultimately raised by the new fees.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Copyright Agreement Review Committee about to lay an egg?

Wow! Five years after the agreement to set up an Agreement Review Committee (ARC) to revise the language on copyright ownership, as part of the Furlough Agreement, the AASUA Council meeting agenda for 22 January shows that the committee plans to present some documents, presumably some new draft language. The documents are not included with the agenda package ("documents to follow"), and they will be presented "for information" only (not debate? — curious).

I will be sure to provide more information once I receive it. It will be very interesting to see what this committee has come up with after 5 years of deliberations!

Note also that an ARC on "Other IP" (i.e., not copyright or patentable IP, for which we have an agreement) is also supposed to have been set up as part of the Furlough Agreement. However, the committee has not been struck yet, the reason being that "they" (not sure who) wanted to wait to get Copyright sorted out first (which does make some sense, except for the huge delay in clarifying the Copyright agreement). So if and when the new language on Copyright is agreed and ratified, a second ARC is to be set up on "Other IP". I think this will address things like ownership of course materials, debate over which (in the internet age) was the starting point for this whole process when the Furlough Agreement was struck. I hope we won't have to wait another 5 years to settle that dispute.

UPDATE: This item was removed from the agenda at the Council meeting.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Indirect costs of research

Last year, central administration decided to stop returning a proportion of the indirect costs of research funds generated from grants to the researchers who secured the grants. At that time, the VP(Research) office said that this "incentive" had not in fact resulted in faculty members generating more grant revenue.

In a recent letter to Faculty of Science members from the Dean, we are given two new reasons for why this money no longer comes back to grant recipients: (1) it was too expensive to handle the transactions; and (2) people were using the money inappropriately (i.e., not to cover "indirect costs", but to help fund things like students).

At least in FacSci, 60% of the money will be returned to Departments for the Chair to decide how to spend it (must be spent on indirect costs of research), while 25% stays with the Faculty, and 15% is kept by the VP(Research) office. Apparently, many other Faculties keep their whole share (85%).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The problem in a nutshell

The Edmonton Journal reports today on possible challenges to public sector worker wages. But a quote from Jim Prentice summarizes the problem in a nutshell:
"Those two realities [expensive public services but the lowest tax rate in Canada] have coexisted because we’ve been able to draw about $10 billion of oil royalties each year to finance these public services. Those oil royalties have, at this point, essentially evaporated and it brings into question the harsh fiscal realities that this is unsustainable."
And you only just figured this out, Mr. Prentice? It really is no wonder this province is in such a mess. Operating costs should never be funded through resource revenues, but through taxation. Resource revenues should be used to invest in the future (e.g., investments in education, long-term infrastructure, economic diversification, renewable energy, you name it...) through the heritage funds set up decades ago by the Lougheed government (but now essentially empty).

Instead, we've seen a government unable to balance its budgets even on the back of $100 oil (which is the anomalous price, by the way, not the current $48 price, which is normal).

Prentice is right on one thing though: the current situation is unsustainable. Time for a PST, and maybe reintroduce health care premiums while you're at it. These two measures would help keep money in the province (whereas a lot of salary money gets exported out of province), and would help pay for operating costs through taxation, not volatile revenues from non-renewable resource extraction.

A commentator on this blog yesterday mentioned Dutch Disease (or the "resource curse"). Perhaps Prentice has never heard of these things? Here are some definitions from the literature to help him understand what's wrong with the way this province's finances have been run for the last few decades:
The term Dutch Disease describes a condition where revenues accrued from a resource boom are typically spent on non-tradable goods [e.g., operating costs], a move that stimulates an appreciation of the real exchange rate, and, in turn, draws resources (namely labour and capital) from other potentially-productive sectors of the economy. The term surfaced in the late-1970s to describe the decline of the manufacturing sector in the Netherlands following the discovery of natural gas in the 1960s. [Hilson, G., and Maconachie, R., 2009, The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative: Panacea or white elephant for Sub-Saharan Africa? in J.P. Richards, ed., Mining, Society, and a Sustainable World: Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg, p. 472]
The “resource curse” can be briefly summarized as follows:
• Large earnings from mineral resources can lead to the “Dutch Disease” phenomenon involving exchange rate overvaluation leading to a decline in the competitiveness of other, non-mineral, economic sectors.
• Dependence on such earnings are problematic if the prices of the minerals in question are volatile in the short-term or subject to sustained decline in the long-term.
• The presence of mineral wealth can encourage governments to adopt misguided industrial policies that offer protectionist barriers to support uncompetitive new activities.
• An economy blessed with abundant but finite natural resources may overconsume. One reason is that incomes in the short term may fail to account properly for the depletion (depreciation) of the nation’s natural capital, thereby resulting in consumption levels that are unsustainable—the correction, when it comes, is inherently damaging to livelihoods.
• Some countries blessed with natural resources may be more prone to poor governance, and in some cases will experience a “predatory” state characterized by corruption, political conflict, and inequalities largely created by state actions. [McPhail, K., 2009, The challenge of mineral wealth: using resource endowments to foster sustainable development, in J.P. Richards, ed., Mining, Society, and a Sustainable World: Springer-Verlag, Berlin-Heidelberg, p. 62–63]
Any of this sound familiar? A few years ago I gave a talk on this subject at a university in Nigeria (which has a classic case of Dutch Disease), but to spare their blushes, I used Alberta as my example.

Monday, January 12, 2015

No "sunshine list" for university employees

According to an article in the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald, post-secondary institutions (along with school boards and the health super board) will not be required to disclose salary information for employees earning more than $100,000.

Mike Storeshaw (Director of Communications for the Premier’s office) is quoted as saying that the decision "respects the arm’s-length relationship with government that some organizations require in order to carry out their roles and mandates." He added, "There are no plans to extend [the sunshine list] beyond government of Alberta employees," although he later added that the Premier would be "open to future policy changes for each agency, board or commission that would require greater public disclosure of salaries."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

eUSRI results

I got an e-mail this morning with a link to my eUSRI results from last term. Actually, the e-mail contains two links, not clearly distinguished: one is to the summary scores for the mandated questions, and a separate link takes you to the comments. For some reason, the two parts of the survey are not linked, so if you're on the comments page, you can't click to the summary scores page, or v.v. In fact it took me a while to realize there was a second link in the e-mail that I had to click on to get to the other page. Each seems to require a separate login. Very strange!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Market Modifier Christmas present for some Faculties

Five programs in Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, Law, Economics, and Business Administration received approval yesterday from the GoA to increase their tuition fees by between 8 and 56%. (Twenty programs at other Alberta universities and colleges also had their market modifier proposals approved.)

While this is doubtless good news for the Faculties concerned (in alleviating some of their budget pressures), it continues the steady offloading of the costs of higher education from the taxpayer to students, and pushes professional programs further out of the reach of most people.

UPDATE:
The Faculty of Arts issued a notice today stating that its share (40%) of the market modifier in Economics will be directed to the Department of Economics to "expand teaching capacity by hiring four new professors and one new lecturer." That's good news, although I don't quite understand these economists' maths: the IAE statement says that the Economics market modifier will raise an additional $438,750 annually, and 40% of that is only $175,500 — so those are pretty cheap professors! (Or maybe they know something about the upcoming salary negotiations that we don't?!)