Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Some budget and policy priorities for Alberta Labour in 2020

The Kenney government will be tabling Alberta’s 2020 budget on February 27. Some labour-side activists got together earlier this year to identify five some budgetary and policy initiatives that should (but likely won’t) be in the 2020 budget. These changes would improve the lives of working Albertans.

This ideas include indexing the minimum wage, budgeting for inflationary increases to public-sector salaries, preventing employers from evading overtime pay through “overtime banking” arrangements, better enforcing laws designed to prevent workplace injuries, and implementing paid short-term sick leave.

The minimum wage

In 2015, Alberta’s minimum wage rose from $10.20/hr. to $15.00/hr., representing a 47% increase. Prior to the 2018 increase, approximately 254,000 Albertans (13.3% of the workforce) earned less than $15/hr. Of these workers, 75% were at least 20-years-old, 63% were women, 37% were parents, 53% worked full time, and 75% had permanent jobs.

The three-year, 47% increase in the minimum wage moved Alberta from having one of the lowest minimum wages to the highest among provinces. The 2018 increase was the last announced increase in the minimum wage. Inflation is now eroding the purchasing power of minimum-wage workers. Further, the minimum wage for workers under 18 enrolled in school was lowered to $13 per hour in 2019.

Indexing the minimum wage to inflation would ensure minimum-wage workers can continue to afford to provide for themselves and their families. Prior to the 2015 election of the NDP government, Alberta indexed the minimum wage to the average of annual increases of the Average Weekly Earnings and the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Mirroring the annual increase in the CPI provides a simple and consistent method by which to adjust the minimum wage.

Public-sector wages

Alberta spends approximately $26.9 billion on public-sector wages annually. Almost all public servants have seen their wages frozen since 2017. Given the erosive effect of inflation, this means that the real-dollar income (i.e., purchasing power) of most public servants has declined by approximately 3.5%. Alberta’s government achieved freezes in most public-sector agreements in 2019/20. The combined impact of 2019 inflation and a rollback would be to reduce real-dollar income for public-servants by between 5 and 8%.

Reducing the real-dollar income of public servants means that these workers are effectively subsidizing the cost of public services through diminished income. This is unfair because public-sector workers already pay taxes. Declining public-sector wages reducing consumer spending and make it difficult to recruit and retain public-sector workers. Alberta’s experience with nursing shortages after the wage freezes and funding cuts of the 1990s is an example of this dynamic.

Budgetting for an inflationary increase to public-sector wages would stabilize public-sector incomes. If inflation is approximately 2.0%, indexing public-sector wages would cost approximately $540 million in 2020.

Overtime pay

Alberta’s Employment Standards Code requires employers to pay workers an overtime (OT) premium when they work beyond 8 hours in a day or 44 hours in a month. This overtime premium is 1.5 times their normal wage rate (e.g., a worker earning $15 per hour would be entitled to pay of $23.50 per hour for every hour of over time).

Allowing employers to require work beyond a normal work week creates operational flexibility. Requiring employers to increase workers’ wages by 50% when overtime is required is intended to incentivize employers to hire more workers, rather than over-working their existing workforce.

Alberta requires OT to be paid out unless the employer and worker have entered into an overtime banking agreement. A banking agreement allows workers to defer overtime pay and take it in subsequent pay periods as time off. Banking arrangements are common in industries where work is seasonal or unpredictable, with workers drawing down banked overtime when work slows down. While employees theoretically enter into OT banking arrangements voluntarily, in practice, employers can use their greater power in the workplace to impose such agreements.

In June of 2019, Alberta amended its overtime rules. This amendment meant that banked over time was banked at straight time. So, 10 hours of banked over time would be now paid out as 10 hours of paid time off, not as 15 hours as it was previously. This change allows employers to evade the overtime premium.

This change has significant financial implications. In 2018, approximately 413,200 Albertans worked an average of 10 hours per week in OT at an average wage of $30.76 per hour. With OT factored in, these hours yielded each worker an average of $461.40 in total pay. If employers implemented OT banking, they could save an average $153.80 per week per worker.

If employers implemented OT banking arrangements for every worker, this would transfer approximately $3.3 billion in OT premiums from workers to employers. This transfer may incentivize some employers (particularly in seasonal industries, such as upstream oil and gas) to minimize additional hiring. It also significantly reduces the income that workers have available to support their families and spend in the economy.

Occupational health and safety

Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (along with it associated regulation and Code) requires employers to ensure workplaces are safe and healthy. Alberta employs approximately 140 Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) inspectors. These inspectors conducted 16,410 inspections (inspecting a total of 8,152 workplaces) in 2018/19. Inspectors wrote 16,680 OHS compliance orders while prosecutors laid 16 charges for OHS violations in 2018/19.

While the numbers of inspections and orders have trended upwards over time, only about 4% of Alberta employers will receive an OHS inspection this year. This means employers face little chance of being caught violating the law. The most common sanction if they are caught is an order to simply comply with the law.

Given this limited enforcement effort, it is not surprising that a recent study suggests only half of Alberta employers comply with even the most basic of OHS requirements (i.e., identifying hazards and control strategies). Additional funding would permit the Ministry to conduct additional compliance blitzes that target high-risk industries or employers with a history of non-compliance.

Non-compliance with OHS rules results in approximately 170,000 disabling injuries annually. Disabling injuries are injuries that mean a worker cannot go to work the next day or requires modified job duties. Overall, approximately 400,000 Albertans experience some sort of major or minor occupational injury or illness in each year (roughly 1 in 5 workers). Additional OHS inspectors and additional resources for prosecution will increase employer compliance. This should, in turn, reduce the level of occupational injury in Alberta. Adding 350 OHS inspectorS would cost roughly $70 million per year.

Paid sick leave

In 2018, Alberta granted all employees 5 days of job-protected leave to deal with personal and family responsibilities, such as illness. Alberta was one of the last Canadian jurisdictions to require employers to do so. While not losing a job if a worker (or a worker’s child) becomes sick is an important right, low-wage workers may not be able to afford to exercise their right to leave because it is unpaid leave.

For example, approximately 254,000 Albertans earn the minimum wage of $15 per hour. If these workers work a 40-hour week, their gross annual incomes are $31,200. Few of these workers will have employer-paid sick leave. Taking five unpaid days of sick leave means forgoing $600 in gross income. Losing out on 25% of one month’s salary may not be financially possible for low-wage workers. Consequently, they may come to work sick or send their children to school while sick to avoid this wage loss, thereby potentially infecting others and increasing the cost of illness.

Converting Alberta’s current job protected leave to deal with personal and family responsibilities from unpaid to paid leave will make this right more accessible to Albertans employed in low-wage jobs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

New course at AU: Union Busting 101


This post originally appeared on the Athabasca University Faculty Association blog:

A recurring question about Athabasca University’s proposal to de-designate 67% of the AUFA membership is why AU is doing this. One explanation is that de-designation may be part of a broader union-busting strategy on the part of AU. 

Union-busting: A primer

Union busting occurs when an employer tries to undermine a union’s actual or perceived effectiveness. Typical union-busting tactics include:
  • Impeding union access to members in the workplace.
  • Refusing to respond to or meet with the union.
  • Violating the collective agreement or past settlement agreements.
  • Making unreasonable demands at the bargaining table to trigger a work stoppage.
  • Seeking to reduce the union’s membership.
These strategies are intended to make the union less effective at representing members. The hope is that, over time, union members start to lose confidence in the union because the union struggles to get members what they are due under the contract.

Employers’ long-term goal is to cause workers to become non-unionized. These tactics are generally motivated by the employer’s desire to reduce compensation costs and increase management power.
Union Busting at AU to Date

Over the past three years, a clear pattern of union-busting behaviour has emerged at AU:

  • Impeding access to members: In the autumn of 2018, AU forced AUFA to leave its offices on the main campus after 35 years. Notice was served after an acrimonious day of bargaining, with AU asserting it no longer had space on campus for the union. The former AUFA offices are now little-used photocopier and storage rooms. AUFA’s relocation to the Tim Byrne Centre means it has less physical access to its members. 
  • Refusing to respond or meet: AU continues to not meet timelines in the collective agreement. For example, AUFA recently had to file a grievance in order to get dates for the joint equity committee to even meet. In 2018 AUFA documented over 40 instances of ignored emails or missed timelines. And a recent reclassification request (with a 25-day timeline) that started last March is still not done. Meetings with HR are more difficult following AU’s decision to relocate key labour relations staff 150km away from the main campus (where AUFA’s staff are based).
  • Violating contracts: AU routinely violates the contract and/or grievance settlement agreements and refuses to remedy obvious errors. Some examples include:
  1. In 2017, AU issued a defective discipline notice. Instead of re-issuing the notice with the correct information, AU forced the matter to arbitration. At arbitration, AU admitted it knew the notice was defective. This dragged out the dispute for more than a year, causing the member great distress. 
  2. In early 2019, AU stole vacation leave from a sick member. Instead of remedying the matter, AU forced the matter to arbitration. Nine months later, after the member’s terminally ill spouse was forced to testify, AU reversed its decision on the basis of medical information that it already had. 
  3. In the summer of 2019, AU violated a 2014 settlement agreement. The agreement specified a new supervisor for the member and a process for any future supervisory changes (requiring member and AUFA consent). AU ignored the settlement agreement and re-assigned the member to a new supervisor without consent. Instead of remedying the issue, AU is forcing AUFA to grieve the violation. The slow pace of arbitration means the member will likely be stuck with the violation for more than a year. 
  1. non-therapeutic examination by company doctors at HR’s request,
  2. the immediate suspension without pay or termination before discipline appeals were heard,
  3. a 50% reduction in layoff notice,
  4. reducing recall rights for staff,
  5. the elimination of the existing probationary review process for professionals, and
  6. the power to terminate probationary professionals with no recourse.
  • Reducing membership: In December, AU presented AUFA with a draft designation policy that would remove approximately 67% of AUFA members from the bargaining unit. If implemented, this proposal will profoundly weaken the bargaining power of AUFA (bargaining starts again in March or April). It will also negatively impact the pension eligibility and bargaining power of any current members who are excluded by the policy.
These behaviours appear designed to reduce AUFA’s ability to represent its members and, thereby, reduce members’ confidence in AUFA. Taken together and using a balance of probabilities test, the pattern strongly suggests that AU is engaged in a union-busting strategy.
What’s is Next?

While it isn’t possible to know exactly what AU’s next moves will be, here are some things to watch for:

  • Gaslighting: AU is likely to deny that it is involved in union busting in order to make us question our perceptions and fight among ourselves. As we saw during last week’s restructuring meetings, HR is denying its intention is to de-designate AUFA members even though the draft policy AU advanced has that exact effect. 
  • Further instability: Last week, AU announced it will undergo a restructuring. Oddly, the specifics of this have not yet been fully worked out and won’t be implemented for some months. This announcement may be an effort by AU to change the channel (i.e., draw out attention away from the designation fight, which AU is losing). It may also be an effort to scare AUFA members, who might be concerned about their jobs. Expect more of this.
  • Job Losses: AU may roll out early retirement packages and/or layoff notices over the next few months. Based on AU’s most recent financial and enrollment reports, there is no financial need for a reduction in staff. Indeed, there has been a significant increase in executive staff over the past year. The instability typically cause by buy-outs and layoffs can be seen as another effort to cow staff.
  • Quick Move to De-designate: AU has indicated it plans to complete the first round of consultation on de-designation by the end of February (although it allows for additional consultation, at its sole discretion). This would position the Board to approve a new policy at its March 27th meeting. 
  • Aggressive bargaining: Bargaining will commence again by the end of April. The government is now able to impose secret and binding bargaining mandates on public-sector employers. This suggests that bargaining is likely to again be difficult and protracted, with a high risk of impasse and work stoppage.
While these expected next moves are disheartening, we are, as a union, able to fight back effectively.
Fighting Back

One of the ironies of AU’s increasingly aggressive approach to labour relations under the watch of President Fassina is growing solidarity between members and a significant loss of trust in Fassina. This growing solidarity is a powerful tool that we can use to oppose AU’s union-busting.

During last year’s bargaining, members actions (such as information pickets, public meetings, workplace sign campaigns, and social media posts) gave the bargaining team the power to resist the employer’s worst proposals. A similar campaign is underway against the designation policy.

It may be necessary to further intensify member actions, depending upon how AU behaves in the coming weeks. AUFA is, of course, also preparing a legal strategy to resist de-designation if member pressure is unsuccessful in thwarting de-designation.


Bob Barnetson, Member
Membership Engagement Committee

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Performance-based funding means more red tape, uncertainty for post-secondary institutions

This post previously appeared on the Parkland Institute Blog.

Last week, the Alberta government announced it will be implementing a performance-based funding model for the province's 26 post-secondary institutions. By 2022/23, 40 percent of institutional operating grants will be “at risk” (i.e., allocated only to the degree that institutions meet certain performance targets).

The government has indicated it will be consulting with institutions about the specific performance measures, and a background document for the consultation is now circulating which suggests there will be about 15 measures tied to funding as well as six other measures that will be reported for transparency purposes.

The document includes examples of each proposed performance measure, but no suggested targets. The targets may be system-wide or may be institution-specific. The metrics tied to funding fall into three broad categories and data sources for these measures have been identified. All of the measures appear to operate at the institutional level. I have summarized the measures below, some of which are a touch unclear.

Labour Market Measures

There are nine measures that assess labour-market outcomes or support for labour-market attachment:
  • Percent of graduates employed two years after graduation
  • Percent of graduates employed in a job related to their credential two years after graduation
  • Percent of graduates employed within six months of graduation
  • Median income of graduates one year after graduation
  • Percent of current students who accessed career counselling
  • Percent of current students who accessed employment services
  • Percent of current students who have taken one or more steps to prepare for a career post-graduation
  • Percent of current students who participated in a work-placement program
  • Percent of employers satisfied that recent graduates were well-prepared across a range of basic skills
These measures frame post-secondary education (PSE) as labour-market training, which is one outcome of PSE. There are no measures of other PSE outcomes (e.g., knowledge creation, critical citizens).

Funding Measures

There are five measures that assess institutional funding:
  • Percent of expenses spent on administration
  • Percent of institutional expenses funded by government (Campus Alberta Grant)
  • Percent of institutional revenue derived from non-mandate-related activity and/or fundraising
  • Full-Load Equivalent (FLE) students divided by total expenditures
  • Sponsored research revenues (for comprehensive research universities only)
These metrics suggest the government desires institutions to reduce their reliance on government funding (the MacKinnon report suggested a target of about 35 percent of revenue from government). The fourth (FLEs divided by total expenditures) measure doesn’t really make any sense to me; the reverse (i.e., expenditures divided by FLEs) would yield spending per student, so perhaps that is the intent.

Institutional reliance on government grants and their capacity to generate non-mandate related revenue (which is not defined in the document but likely includes continuing education courses, campus recreation, and food services revenue) varies widely. This may be an area where institution-specific targets are appropriate.

Enrollment Measures

There are four measures that assess institutional enrollments:
  • Number “domestic” FLE students enrolled
  • Number of international FLE students enrolled
  • Number of Indigenous learners enrolled
  • Number of domestic students enrolled in the 20 highest-demand programs at the institution
Measuring the number of FLEs will require institution-specific targets. The government could use these enrollment targets to pressure institutions to expand enrollments with no additional funding just by changing the targets from one year to the next.

The measure assessing the number of domestic students enrolled in the 20 highest-demand programs is difficult to unpack. The briefing document says a “Post-secondary demand model was developed in 2019 and is currently being finalized. Will be shared with institutions for planning purposes.” This measure may be designed to push institutions to expand access in high-demand programs.

But the definition of high demand is unclear. Is it high demand as defined by student applications? Or is high demand defined by some other group (e.g., employers) or by Alberta labour market forecasts? If high-demand programs vary from year-to-year (which is likely), institutions will struggle to meet targets because most programs span multiple years and expanding and contracting programs is slow and expensive.

Analysis

The most obvious implication of these draft measures is that the government views PSE uni-dimensionally as labour-market training. While PSE does certainly provide labour-market outcomes for graduates, this funding mechanism does not address the many other outcomes for students of a post-secondary education.

The structure of the performance system is penalty based: institutions that fail to meet targets will see their government grant reduced. This structure may introduce significant instability into a system already grappling with significant reductions in government operating grants. Penalizing institutions that fail to meet these targets will hinder improvement efforts (because there is no money to do so) and it may further degrade institutional performance (because now there is even less money).

Compounding the difficulties that will be caused by this punitive approach is that institutions have little meaningful control over many of the outcomes upon which they are being assessed. For example, the labour market outcomes will be largely driven by general economic conditions and/or the behaviours of students and graduates. If institutions can’t meaningfully influence the outcomes upon which their performance is being assessed, it is reasonable to question whether performance-based funding will have any meaningful impact upon institutional behaviour (other than redirected resources from teaching and research to administrative report-writing). This dynamic seems to sit at odds with the government’s stated desire to reduce “red tape.”

Similarly, institutions have little control over who applies to be a student. The proposed international and Indigenous student measures essentially set quotas based on citizenship and/or heritage. While equity group quotas are a valid policy instrument, these measures seem a touch off-brand for the UCP. For example, if institutions don’t meet the international student target and are financial punished for it, the UCP will be in the odd position of punishing institutions for educating Canadians.

Absent an indication of the targets that are being set, it is hard to assess the probable impact of this system. If the targets are easy to meet, then performance-based funding will have little impact (and is thus a waste of effort). If the targets are too hard to meet, institutions will see likely see a significant loss of funding. For institutions that are highly reliant on government funding and/or are in precarious financial situations, a big loss of funding will be profoundly destabilizing.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Corona virus as an OHS issue

Source: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy
The developing outbreak of coronavirus got me thinking about how institutions react to pandemics. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is an interesting example to look back on.

SARS originated in China and resulted in 44 deaths, over 400 illnesses and 25,000 quarantined persons in Canada (there are slightly different stats, depending on your source). An 11% mortality rate was the global norm.

Back in 2003, when the SARS outbreak occurred, I was working at the Alberta Labour Relations Board. Right as the outbreak was becoming news (but before anyone had a handle on how SARS spread), my boss took a vacation to China.

The staff were concerned that he might bringing the virus into the workplace. The staff included folks with compromised immune systems, chronic diseases, and, in my case, a pregnant wife at home. So, basically, we were like every other workplace anywhere.

The staff met and deputized two of us to go talk to our boss’s boss (the big-boss). Our request to the big-boss was that our boss be given a couple of days off when he got back to see if he developed any symptoms before coming back to work (a pretty reasonable ask, in retrospect). The big-boss declined our request, basically poo-pooing our concerns as alarmist.

Whether that decision was consistent with his obligations under the OHS Act of the day was an open question. We talked about filing an OHS complaint or refusing unsafe work. But, since the big boss was a big wheel in government and was tight with the deputy minister of Labour, we figured a complaint was likely pointless.

Refusing might have worked, but there was a pattern of harassment in the office by the boss. He would target people and harass them until they quit. So we figured a refusal would just make the refusers the next targets, so we dropped it.

Fortunately, no one in the office was infected. But, somehow, the boss found out about our request to the big-boss. The boss then went around the hallways loudly calling the concerns ridiculous and bullshit. And that’s about when he started harassing me.

Unlike his past harassment of my colleagues (which involved publicly berating then until they quit), he chose to bury me with work. After a few months, I was carrying three times the normal file load. I’d ask for help, he’d take a file, be unable to figure out how to do the work on the file, hand it off to an admin assistant (who didn’t get paid to do high-risk work like manage files), and it would then end up back on my desk several days later with no work done. The parties involved would then start calling, pissed off that nothing had moved on their file (which is fair enough).

Over the course of two months, I simply started to burn out (e.g., exhaustion, depression, hopelessness). One concerning symptom was short-term memory loss: I would have conversations one day with coworkers and be unable to remember the conversation the next day (although the paperwork clearly demonstrated the conversations had happened). 

Eventually, I went to my GP (worried about dementia) and he was like “yeah, it’s not dementia, you just need some time off for stress.” After a few days away fro, work, my symptoms went away. So I then quit and got a new job.

Seventeen years later, I see this as a fairly typical instance of an OHS failure:
  1. Workers raise a legitimate concern about a potential health hazard.
  2. Employers waves it off because the risk is unknown (even though the potential consequence is large).
  3. Workers decide exercising their OHS rights will not likely be effective and may cause retaliation.
  4. Workers who raised the issue begins to experience retaliation, through the misuse of legitimate managerial powers.
  5. Worker is forced out of job and hazard remains uncontrolled.
This commonplace pattern is one reason why workers generally don't report hazards or injuries. That it happened at the government agency tasked with administering labour law is, perhaps, ironic but is also unsurprising. This dynamic happens everywhere—production matters more than workers. from what former coworkers told me, the pattern of harassment by the boss continued until he retired.

In the wake of the SARS epidemic, most public-sector organizations developed pandemic plans. The data I have seen suggests only about 10% of private sector organizations have such plans. It will be interesting to see how organizations handle the risk of coronavirus in light of our experience with SARS. Do they take it more seriously given SARS? Or do they ignore it until someone comes down with the illness?

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, January 23, 2020

So I almost died on a picket line today...

The City Wide Towing truck that almost ran me down.
There were a bunch of trade unionists leafleting drivers entering the Co-op Gas Bar on St Albert Trail in Edmonton this morning. We were asking drivers to get their gas somewhere else to apply consumer pressure to the Co-op Refinery in Regina. The refinery locked their workers out in early December to try to drive rollbacks into the worker’s pension plans (the refinery is hugely profitably).

It was a pretty routine picket line. Picketers with signs were on the sidewalk alongside St Albert Trail for visibility and to alert motorists intending to gas up that there was a picket line at the station. To get into the gas bar, drivers had to turn off St Albert Trail onto a side street, drive about 75 feet, and then turn into the gas station. The picket line with leaflets was at the entrance to the gas bar. Leafleters had orange jackets and reflective vests.

Picketing works: Empty pumps at Co-op.
The first 90 minutes were quiet—only 13 drivers decided to proceed past the picketers and got gas. Many more decided to go up the street to Shell. Some drivers took leaflets and chatted, others didn’t and were waved through with no wait. (The store is not Co-op owned we just waved those customers through as well.) Overall, a very civilized experience.

About 9:30, a heavy haul tow truck from City Wide Towing turned off the St Albert Trail. The driver was shaking his head at the first line of pickets. He then drive towards the gas bar turn in where he started his turn early and drove right through the picket line without slowing. Fortunately, the picketers saw him coming.

I stepped back about three feet. Because of the length of the tow truck, the rear wheels tracked inside his turn and missed me by only few inches. If I hadn’t have stepped back, he would have clipped and I would have gone under the rear tires. He then got out and beaked off at us and went into the store.

After we wrapped up our picket, I called City Wide Towing and reported the incident. I was told a manager and the safety officer would call me back. I said I’d wait until the end of the day to hear from them. So far, no call.

Driver of the tow truck.
Thinking back, the City Wide Driver pretty clearly targeted the picketers with his truck. There was lots of warning of the picket line, lots of room to slow down and stop, and he could even have driven past the first entrance and come in the back way (another 100 feet down the side street). Starting his turn early and not braking were intentional decisions to buzz the line. There was zero remorse when he got out of the truck.

More surprising is City Wide’s complete lack of response. The employee could have injured or killed me or another picketer. That would have resulted in a police investigation, a lawsuit, and tons of bad publicity for City Wide. Clearly, this employee deserves to get canned.

You can call City Wide Towing at 403 287-9111 (press 1 at the menu) if you’d like to let them know what you think of their driver’s behaviour. Or perhaps we should picket them? :)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Back to the future: Alberta introduces performance-based funding


Earlier this week, Alberta announced it would be implementing a new funding model. This model links up to 40% of institutional funding to performance on various targets. The Minister claims “[t]his is a new and completely transformative funding model.” This claim both is and isn’t true.

It isn’t true as Alberta (and other jurisdictions) experimented with performance-based funding in the late 1990s and Ontario is back at this. Alberta eventually abandoned performance-based funding, at least in part, because it was administratively burdensome and institutions could do little to improve their performance where they did not meet the targets.

The Minister’s statement is true in that the size and punitive approach of the new model has not been seen before in Alberta. The 1990s model provided a small amount of additional funding if performance target were met. The current model places significant amount of current funding (up to 40% by 2023) in jeopardy if targets are not met.

The exact institutional performance metrics have not been decided (or so we’re told). But a list of possible measures was included:
  • graduate employment rate
  • median graduate income
  • graduate skills and competencies
  • work-integrated learning opportunities
  • administrative expense ratio
  • sponsored research revenue
  • enrolment (including potential targets for domestic students, international students and under-represented learners)
These metrics will, according to the Minister, “help ensure students are set up for success by encouraging institutions to produce job-ready graduates.”

It is hard to assess an incomplete proposal, but here are a few thoughts:

Performance measures are conceptual technologies, in that they shape what issues we think about and how we think about them. For example, assessing the employment rate and income of graduates emphasizes the labour-market training role performed by post-secondary institutions. Not assessing other roles (e.g., developing an informed and critical populace) obscures these other roles.

Continuing with this example, measuring graduates’ employment rates and incomes also suggests (however implicitly) that institutions have some control over these outcomes. Certainly institutions can (to some minor degree) influence these outcomes based upon which programs are offered and the career services institutions provide. But graduates’ behaviour and general economic conditions are likely to be far more important determinants of these outcomes.

These more important contributors to labour-market outcomes are entirely outside of institutional control. Yet, bizarrely, the government is suggesting making institutions accountable for outcomes they have little control over.

And, institutions that fail to meet targets will be financially penalized (i.e., have less money to improve performance). Absent radical internal re-allocations (which will be difficult since grants will also shrink over time), these institutions be unable to take meaningful steps to improve performance which, it must be remembered, is largely driven by factors outside of institutions’ control anyhow.

So where does such a system take us? Well, that depends on the details (that we don’t have).

One possibility is that performance targets are set such that institutions are already meeting them (or can easily met them). That doesn’t seem in keeping with the UCP’s narrative that the public sector is inefficient. Further, it would mean the new performance metric system is just a bunch of additional government red tape that serves no real purpose (except maybe to make institutions more easily controlled by government).

A second possibility is that institutions re-allocate funding internally to ensure they meet challenging targets. Since funding is tight, this might include dumping programs that drag down institutional averages on performance metrics and expanding programs that push up averages. The exact outcomes are hard to predict and may be unexpected. For example, during a downturn in oil and construction, the graduate employment measure may pressure institutions to curtail trades programs. I mention that example only because the government is constantly messaging the importance of getting more youth involved in the trades.

Another possibility is institutional gaming (which is often a response to performance measures). Institutions will, to the degree possible, prioritize measures that they do well on while de-emphasizing measures that they do poorly on. Institutions may also play some accounting games. For example, the ratio of administrative to academic expenses can be changed by recoding certain salaries and expenses as academic. This gaming and the broader enterprise of collecting and analyzing this data will, ironically, consume resources that could be better spent on educating students.

A fourth possibility is that performance-based funding is designed to cause financially precarious institutions to fail. In the short term, institutions seeing operating grants decline would likely seek wage-rollbacks and layoffs. This government-induced financial crisis would reduce public-sector expenditures (seemingly a key government priority). In the longer-term, an inability to balance budgets would provide a pretext for closing or amalgamating institutions (I’m thinking particularly of rural colleges, which are electorally popular in Tory ridings but of unclear financial viability).

It will be interesting to see which performance measures Alberta and individual institution come up with and how institution’s behaviour changes ins response to them.

-- Bob Barnetson
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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

College Humour: How Sex Workers Settled the West



So, we want to take anything produced by College Humour with a grain of salt. But this light-hearted examination of the history of sex work in the American west offers an interesting counterpoint to the typical portrayal of female sex workers in the western genre.

While you wouldn't want to cite this video in a paper, it does a reasonably job of highlighting the tension between exploitation and agency that lies at the heart of sex work. These themes are explored in AU's new course LBST 415: Sex Work and Sex Workers.

-- Bob Barnetson