UAlberta president engages with campus community

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta has deftly navigated tough fiscal times but will continue to make its case for adequate resources to address Alberta’s shortage of skilled talent, President Indira Samarasekera said during her annual town hall.

The Nov. 16 town hall, with a question-and-answer format, touched on numerous issues on the minds of students, faculty and staff, from budget constraints and enrolment to online learning, graduate education and even the departure of a high-profile researcher.

On the subject of budget constraints, where the university is once again looking for 1.5 per cent savings, Samarasekera credited the U of A community for its fiscal prudence but said the cuts cannot continue in perpetuity. The province has committed to two per cent annual funding increases, lower than the four per cent needed to address annual costs such as wage settlements.

“I keep pounding at deputy ministers and so on that two per cent is not enough,” Samarasekera said. “We are faced with cuts at a time when this province needs the kinds of people we graduate. We just can’t continue to cut.”

Samarasekera credited the campus community for being part of the solution with the recent Umbrella Committee and 400 ideas put forward for rethinking how the university does business. Administration is starting to act on many of those ideas, she said, and efforts continue to lessen reliance on government funding through scholarships, grants and a new fundraising case for support.

“It is vital that we continue to work with government, but with one voice and with targeted and strategic communications,” she said, “basically talking about the long term and the need for long-term investments, and the need to build for the Alberta that is going to emerge after this financial crisis is over.”

The importance of international students

When later asked about the university’s recruitment of international students and enrolment targets during such constraints, Samarasekera said those issues also have been raised with the province. She said international students make up just 10 per cent of undergraduate enrolment, a number that has to rise to meet the province’s labour needs—by 2020, Alberta will be short more than 100,000 skilled workers.

“Why do we need international students? Because we have labour market needs that we cannot satisfy with Alberta students alone,” she said, while also noting that international students do not take spots from domestic students. “The best solution is to encourage international students to come here because some of them will participate in the labour force.”

Online learning: A vision for the future

On the subject of online and blended learning and the university’s recent memorandum of understanding with Udacity, Samarasekera said the issue is coming to the fore because universities are being asked to reimagine themselves. The U of A has expertise in this area, and a visioning committee has been tasked with creating a strategy for the future—something the entire campus community will have input on.

“This is our chance to learn,” she said of the Udacity MOU, which she notes is only one pilot project. “There’s nothing sinister or secretive behind any of this. It’s a chance to be part of, I think, a very exciting movement worldwide. What I would request is that we focus on is the Visioning Committee and its report that will be shared.”

Strong, vibrant faculty

When quizzed about her response to the departure of a Canada Excellence Research Chair that made headlines, Samarasekera said the circumstances of one individual do not define the U of A experience. She also called attention to the positive followup story and a planned opinion editorial to appear in Saturday's Edmonton Journal.

“We are strong and vibrant. The other three chairs we recruited are still here and doing a great job,” she said. “Many of the faculty in this room that we have recruited from around the world and other parts of Canada are happy, along with those of you that are Albertans born and raised here.”

Listen to the entire President’s Town Hall