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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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Galleria post on Colloquy

There's a curious post on Colloquy about the Galleria project, which seems to be a defence of a position, but I'm not sure to whom it is directed. Phrases like "Yes, the university has identified climate-controlled access to the Galleria from the LRT as critical ..." seem to be rebuttals to criticism, but it's not clear who the critics are — Edmonton City Council? Paula Simons? Taxpayers? Us?

As with the Leadership College, revealing a fully costed business plan (better still, along with a well thought out academic plan) might go a lot further in silencing critics than a rearguard defense.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Kim Campbell picked to head Lougheed Leadership College

The Edmonton Journal reports that former Conservative PM Kim Campbell has been appointed to head the new Lougheed Leadership College. That might be a good choice — but who made the decision? Maybe I missed it but I don't recall seeing an advertisement for this position, or a call for a selection committee. It seems, like everything else surrounding this initiative, that normal procedures don't need to be followed, and decisions can be made by mysteriously delegated authority.

I'd be curious to know Ms. Campbell's academic credentials (she doesn't seem to have a PhD, according to her website), and whether she will be appointed as an academic faculty member.

And I'm sure there's no coincidence that a former conservative prime minister was chosen for this role, given the GoA's financial backing for the project.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Education taxes in Alberta to drop by up to 4.5%

An article in the Edmonton Journal suggests that the city should increase its civic proportion of property taxes to take advantage of a 4.5% decrease in the provincial education tax.

I guess I missed this nugget in the March provincial budget, but it is spelled out in detail here, including the following absurdly contradictory quotes:
For the 2014 calendar year, the provincial uniform education property tax rates have been reduced by an average of approximately 4.5 per cent.... 
This marks the 21st straight year that the education property tax mill rate has been lowered or frozen. In fact, since assuming responsibility for education property taxes, the province has cut residential education property tax rates by almost 67 per cent
All the money collected through the education property tax goes to fund Albertans' priorities in education
Together with education property tax revenue, funding from the general revenue fund is used to ensure that the resources available to a student depend on the needs of the student and not the wealth (assessment base) of the municipality in which the student lives. This means all students have access to a quality education, no matter where they live.
Clearly education is not a "priority" for Albertans if we've been cutting the tax rate for the last 21 years! You get what you pay for.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

GoA announces its Open Educational Resources Initiative

The GoA today announced its previously mooted Open Educational Resources Initiative. According to its website:
Open education resources include textbooks, modules, multi-media educational materials, and lesson plans. These materials are offered freely and openly without an accompanying need to pay copyright realities or licence fees.
It's magic! This stuff just appears on the internet for free! But why would anyone do that for free? There's a cost somewhere, but the GoA (and its students) just don't want to pay it.

This comes back to the issue of ownership of intellectual property and copyright — which we are still waiting for new contract language on 4 years after the furlough agreement.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Wow, I got a Happiness Appreciation Award! Thanks Anonymous!

But when I shook the virtual envelope, nothing fell out :-(

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

UWO Faculty Association report reveals admin's "creative" accounting

A recently released report by the University of Western Ontario's Faculty Association reveals how the university's board and administrators have prioritized the use of operating funds away from core teaching and research purposes to create apparent deficits in those areas, while building up reserves and investing in capital projects. Sound familiar?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Stringent new entrance requirements announced for the UofAy, starting Fall 2014

In response to growing concerns about the life skills of students entering the UofAy, Impostor Provost Jerome Ricardo announced last night that all new student applicants (both undergraduate and graduate) would be required to complete a 1-week assessment of their competencies and attributes prior to admission, effective September 2014. The week would replace the recently approved Fall Reading Week, and would occur in the first week of term; no adjustments to the Calendar would be needed. The assessment would consists of a number of written, oral, and practical tests under several general headings. Example questions are provided below for guidance only, and questions may be asked on any aspect of adult life.

1. Ethical responsibility
  • Global citizenship: The ability to correctly name and locate five countries other than Canada on a blank globe.
  • Community engagement: The ability to keep a 10 m length of sidewalk clear of leaves and snow.
  • Social and environmental awareness: The ability to walk down a street without looking at a smartphone.
  • Professionalism: The ability to use a salutation other than "Hey!"
2. Scholarship
  • Knowledge breadth and depth: Knowing what subject one intends to study at the UofAy.
  • Interdisciplinarity: Awareness that other subject areas can also be studied at the UofAy.
  • Life-long learning: A written, notarized oath that the student will commit to life-long learning (the oath to be renewed annually after graduation, with evidence of continued learning; otherwise, any degree awarded from the UofAy will be rescinded).
  • Investigation: Ability to find the classroom in which the exam will be conducted.
3. Critical thinking
  • Analytic and synthetic reasoning: The ability to coherently answer a question with relevant information and logic.
  • Interpretive proficiency: The ability to understand a question.
  • Intellectual curiosity: The ability to ask a meaningful question.
  • Information literacy: The ability to seek and find the answer to a question.
4. Communication
  • Writing skills: The ability to write a single, grammatically correct, original sentence (no quotes) in English, with more than 140 characters and including a subject noun, an object noun, a verb, an adverb, and an adjective.
  • Oral Skills: The ability to spontaneously speak a sentence as above.
  • Visual communication: The ability to look someone in the eye when speaking to them or being spoken to.
  • Multilingualism: The ability to say "Hello" in a language other than English, or in English for non-native English speakers.
5. Collaboration
  • Openness to diversity: The willingness to speak to someone who is not like you.
  • Interpersonal skills: The willingness to speak to anyone.
  • Adaptability and compromise: The ability and willingness to walk on the right in HUB Mall.
  • Individual contribution: The ability to do any of the above without prompting.
6. Creativity
  • Imagination: The ability to think of something original and interesting to say on a social media of the student's choice.
  • Innovation: The ability to think of something practical to say on a social media of the student's choice.
  • Divergent thinking: The ability to offer a contrary view without being rude on a social media of the student's choice.
  • Artistic sensibility: The ability to enjoy any of the following: a painting, a piece of music, a play. The ability to create or participate in any of these would attract bonus points.
7. Confidence
  • Leadership and empowerment: The ability of the student to get her or his own way.
  • Independence: The ability of the student to get her or his own way without help from others.
  • Initiative: The ability to decide to get her or his own way.
  • Resilience: The ability to stick with a course of action despite contrary advice or criticism.
Students failing any part of the assessment would be sent back to school, and would not receive a refund on tuition.

The proposal was put forward by a sub-committee of the General Functionaries Council, and was approved without debate or vote.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Attributes and Competencies — the latest bandwagon

At the GFC meeting yesterday, we were told about the latest fad that we will ignore at our peril "because everyone else is doing it" — attributes and competencies.

Apparently industry employers aren't interested any more in whether graduates have any academic skills, but are more interested in their overall competency as human beings; they feel they can train up new recruits in specific job-related skills, but they're not interested in someone who can't read or write.

That makes a lot of sense, and has been the basis for hiring for decades or centuries: it's a given that a job applicant should be technically competent (easily assessed from academic transcripts), but the other "life" skills distinguish the suitability of one individual over another for a specific job or employer. However, such skills are harder to assess — which is why there are interviews and letters of reference.

But apparently that's not enough these days. Employers and government bean counters want to be able to "measure" competencies and attributes — or rather, they now want universities to measure them for them, and to provide students with some form of certificate quantifying their attainment.

A report by a subcommittee of the GFC Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) entitled Graduate Attributes at the University of Alberta, lists the following 28 "attributes and sub-attributes" under seven main headings that it thinks UofA students (both undergraduate and post-graduate) should possess by the time they graduate:

1  Ethical responsibility
    a. Global citizenship
    b. Community engagement
    c. Social and environmental awareness
    d. Professionalism

2  Scholarship
    a. Knowledge breadth and depth
    b. Interdisciplinarity
    c. Life-long learning
    d. Investigation

3  Critical thinking
    a. Analytic and synthetic reasoning
    b. Interpretive proficiency
    c. Intellectual curiosity
    d. Information literacy

4  Communication
    a. Writing skills
    b. Oral Skills
    c. Visual communication
    d. Multilingualism

5  Collaboration
    a. Openness to diversity
    b. Interpersonal skills
    c. Adaptability and compromise
    d. Individual contribution

6  Creativity
    a. Imagination
    b. Innovation
    c. Divergent thinking
    d. Artistic sensibility

7  Confidence
    a. Leadership and empowerment
    b. Independence
    c. Initiative
    d. Resilience

I agree that this is a list of desirable attributes for any individual, but they are largely personal skills which are not taught (except at basic levels at school), but learned by experience and doing; and some are simply character traits that some people have and others don't — that's what makes us individuals. A large part of the point of going to university is to acquire or hone some or all of these skills, but they are learned by engaging in the personally challenging environment of a university — or used to be when professors were allowed to personally challenge students.

And here's the rub — it seems that students can no longer be expected to challenge themselves to gain these skills, but once again want to offload that responsibility onto someone else, in this case university professors. So rather than having to challenge themselves to acquire these skills, or to personally prove that they are "intellectually curious" (for example), they can point to some metric that shows they completed courses where the intellectually curiosity box was ticked.

Although this report was mainly written by students (the bulk of the membership of the CLE subcommittee), the Provost nevertheless indicated that this is something we cannot ignore, and that such things already exist in other countries and have been adopted at other Canadian universities. So of course we must do it, and naysayers and critics are behind the times and must simply accept it.

The Provost also seemed to acknowledge that we already inculcate many of these qualities in our students, and that we as professors will see little change as a result of this initiative. In which case this just seems like yet another administrative make-work project, necessitating appointment of yet another Provost’s Fellow and wasting even more of our diminishing number of support staff's valuable time.

The report was on the GFC agenda for discussion only, so of course there was no vote, and any dissenting voices were put firmly in their place.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Canada smart, China smarter

The comments under the last post on public-funded universities have been very interesting, especially in their wide diversity of opinion. This likely reflects the very wide range of experiences and practices across campus. It would be valuable to have some real data on this variability: for example, in the proportion of international to Canadian to Albertan students, both undergraduate and graduate, and broken out by faculty or even department; the level of funding provided to students, similarly broken out; the real per capita costs of educating them (the latter was discussed at length a few months ago with no real clarity at the end), etc.

It is very impolitic to publicly discuss international students, but I was one for all of my graduate career, so I feel I have some licence to do so. In my opinion, every graduate student should get as far away from their Alma Mater as possible for each new degree, and ideally travel overseas to gain fresh experience and perspective (on life as well as one's studies). And it should be entirely up to the individual to decide where they want to eventually put down roots (for me it was a toss-up between Australia and Canada, but then I met my future — and present, he adds hastily! — wife in Saskatoon, which sort of decided things!)

Unfortunately, what I see from my personal foxhole is that Canadian students are very reluctant to do this, and in Alberta, are very reluctant even to go to college. This is partly due to the high levels of debt that students must accumulate to fund them through this process (unless they have rich and generous parents, or can hold down a full-time job while going to school), and also the current high salaries available and low unemployment in Alberta's private sector. The result is that in my field, it is very difficult to attract Canadian graduate students, even for fully funded projects (i.e., no need to spend time as a teaching assistant). And if I recruit a foreign student, then my department's policy is that I must pay the (steadily increasing) foreign student fee differential (now up around $5k per student per year).

But there's another source of graduate students that come with little cost attached: Chinese students funded through the China Scholarship Council. China has no doubt about the need to educate its young people, and is willing to put large amounts of State (taxpayer?) money towards this objective. China also has no doubt about the value of sending its young people overseas to learn new ideas and perspectives — and then bring them and their newfound knowledge back to China (most CSC awards require the recipient to return to China for a period at the end of the program). They also fund similar programs for post-docs and junior academics. Damned smart I'd say!

I have hosted several such students and post-docs, and for the most part the experience has been good. They are hard working and keen to learn, and so long as you don't mind spending countless hours correcting English, they generate good research and actually write papers. And sometimes I get invitations to visit their "parent" universities (with whom they maintain close ties and commonly continue to receive funding), and embark on funded collaborative projects. So long as one can get past the idea that one is just a "trophy westerner", and put effort into generating real research opportunities and effective mutual collaborations, then this is a win-win opportunity. And right now with declining Tri-Council funding for basic research, it's pretty much the only game in town!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Should we give up on the idea of being a publicly-funded university?

Provost Carl Amrhein spoke at length at the campus forum yesterday about the need for new revenue generation mechanisms to replace declining provincial funding. In his world tour last year, he visited several institutions in Australia and Germany where revenue generation through the sale (at high cost) of professional programs and courses makes up for low levels of government funding (< 50% for many "peer" institutions, and as low as 10% in some cases). The Provost indicated that our relatively high level of government support was unusual, and we'd better get used to significantly lower levels in the near future. There was no talk about trying to convince the government to maintain or increase funding — he seemed to consider that to be a lost cause.

In his brave new world, the Provost sees us milking professional programs, offering marked-up programs overseas, running MOOCs for profit, and signing up to massive, lucrative, multinational research projects funded through multiple governments and agencies.

Presumably all this cash-flow will fund our core purpose, the education of Albertan students. Oh, but why bother? If we're no longer getting a significant proportion of our funding from Albertan taxes, why should we waste time and money educating Albertans at anything other than full market value? If the government is not our main paymaster, then why should we adhere to their guidelines on tuition?* Albertans will be welcome if they can pay the full cost of their education (plus some extra for growth, because you've got to keep growing to be successful!), but can otherwise take a welding course at NAIT.

The logical conclusion of the Provost's model is very sad, irrespective of whether other countries are doing it: the death of public-funded universities that conduct research and offer education as a public good. As I've said several times on this blog before, I'm very glad I'm not just starting out in my academic career!

* The only snag to cutting ourselves off entirely from the provincial purse-strings is that I think the government owns our buildings....