U of A studying impact of zero-fee education model in Drayton Valley

No-cost education initiative aims to help build a resilient, inclusive economy in rural Alberta.


With help from new federal funding, U of A researchers will examine outcomes from an innovative zero fee tuition initiative in Drayton Valley that aims to help rural Albertans skill up for new careers without having to leave their home communities. (Photo: Town of Drayton Valley)

Funding for research on a cutting-edge, no-cost education initiative aimed at helping rural Albertans train for new careers without needing to leave their communities was announced today by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre, the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension, the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families and the Town of Drayton Valley.

Supported by $659,174 in federal funding from the Future Skills Centre (FSC), the two-year research project will examine the impact of a Zero Fee Tuition concept already underway in Drayton Valley. New partnerships with the U of A’s Faculty of Extension and other post-secondary institutions across the province will allow the town to provide expanded offerings for the 2021 program year.

The participatory research will explore how a rural community reinvents itself through a Zero Fee Tuition model by working alongside the entire community, including businesses and industry, community organizations, citizen groups, local and provincial government, educational institutions and students participating in the program.

“By examining the initiative’s implementation and outcomes, this research can provide an innovative model for other towns and regions seeking to become more resilient in the face of declining industries and other shocks to their economies,” said lead researcher Maria Mayan, associate director of the Community-University Partnership and interim dean of the Faculty of Extension.

Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre, said the concept of free education in Drayton Valley is a perfect example of ways in which FSC is investing in innovative and radical approaches to training, building capacity and filling future skills gaps.

“This is just one of the exciting shock-proofing projects that FSC is investing in to build a future playbook for shared prosperity, and help Canadian workers and businesses seize opportunities in our future economy.”

The Zero Fee Tuition concept, the only one of its kind in Canada, is a unique approach to economic transition for communities like Drayton Valley that are grappling with unemployment and recession. By subsidizing tuition costs, the initiative aims to stimulate the economy and provide hope by increasing post-secondary opportunities for students, and providing options for extended studies for mature learners looking to upskill in their current careers or reskill into new career paths.

Drayton Valley, which has relied heavily on an economy fuelled by jobs in the oil and gas sector, has experienced a significant recession since 2014, with a nearly 80 per cent increase in unemployment. The COVID-19 pandemic has added further pressure, compromising the remaining sectors that sustained the community.

Zero fee education has the potential to reinvigorate the region and contribute to transformational change by removing financial barriers and creating locally tailored educational opportunities.

“We were looking for a way to support our community as the economic climate presented several challenges for our town and our residents, and are excited to be partnering with the University of Alberta as it conducts this research project,” said Michael Doerksen, mayor of Drayton Valley.

“Investing in education will help drive Drayton Valley to a more sustainable and resilient future; from an economic standpoint, the initiative also encourages our youth and families to remain in the community and will also put Drayton Valley on the map as a community of choice for families and businesses,” he added.

The findings from the research project will help determine how a model of free education can be developed and sustained, and assess the initial outcomes of such a model on the creation of a resilient and inclusive economy.

“We can use this information to inform policy and practice at municipal, provincial and federal levels and across numerous sectors,” said Mayan, noting that studies have shown a connection between increased education and lower poverty rates, increased economic growth and an increased standard of living.