2019 State of the University Address

On Tuesday, October 1, President Turpin delivered the 2019 State of the University Address in Convocation Hall.

On Tuesday, October 1, President Turpin delivered the 2019 State of the University Address in Convocation Hall. Read the address below.


Welcome to the 2019 State of the University address.

We are gathered today on Treaty 6 territory. The University of Alberta respects the histories, languages, and cultures of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and all First Peoples of Canada, whose presence enriches our vibrant community.

Thank you, everyone, for coming.

The State of the University address is, for me, an occasion to take stock, to consider where we stand in relation to our goals and aspirations, as well as in relation to the broader context in which we do our work.

Right now that context is in flux. I know that many of you are here to learn more about what we might expect over the coming months, as the provincial government prepares to table its budget on October 24, in response to the recommendations of the MacKinnon Report.

While we expect changes to come, before we consider in some detail what those changes might entail, I want to begin today, by focusing our attention on why we are here at the University of Alberta: We are here because of our students, our research, and our engagement with and commitment to our communities. How we respond to coming challenges will be shaped by our commitment to these three enduring priorities.

Let us first consider our students:

40,000 students arrived on U of A campuses this fall. While the majority hail from Edmonton and Alberta, more students than ever have joined us from other parts of Canada - thanks to continuing work on our national recruitment strategy.

We have also attracted more international students from more countries - 156 countries in total.

With our residence guarantee for all first year students - and the opening up of 870 new spots over the past two years, our students now have more opportunity than ever to gain the benefits that come with a residential experience. And, we have capacity to grow.

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Our students are very bright. They know that our programs are rigorous, academic, demanding - and they rise to the challenge. This year, U of A sent its 75th student off to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship - the 7th since 2015.

They are striving to be leaders - whether as presidents of student clubs, members of students' council, editors at The Gateway, residence life leaders or campus rec team managers.

They have big dreams - and they aren't wasting time. They are building satellites, creating new businesses, winning international competitions in everything from moot courts to eco-car races.

Graduate students are testing their entrepreneurial skills before judges in Three Minute Thesis and Falling Walls competitions - and winning. More importantly, they are taking their research into the community, where their innovations are diversifying our economy, and leading to improvements in areas as diverse as dementia care and smart transportation systems to art and theatre.

Undergraduates from every faculty are taking their skills into the community through opportunities for experiential or work-integrated learning. Each year, more than 800 student teachers are teaching in Edmonton's schools. This year, nearly 1700 students, enrolled in 53 Community Service Learning courses helping 190 community organizations achieve their goals. More than 2,000 Engineering co-op students are currently working around the world in industries as diverse as Suncor and Tesla.

These kinds of experiences mean that our students are in demand by employers. A study published earlier this summer showed that 4 out of 5 of our graduate students have a job offer before they finish their degree - and of those surveyed a full 99% are currently employed.

Likewise, our undergraduate students are ranked #2 in Canada on QS World Rankings for Employability.

Universities matter because they matter to individuals - and through them, universities matter to the communities and societies our graduates come from, contribute to, and change for the better.

Universities also matter because of our commitment to research, scholarship, and artistic creation - and our conviction that a creative, research enriched environment is a critical part of both our students' experience and our own ability to engage with and transform communities for the public good.

Creating that environment starts from our fundamental commitment to intellectual integrity, freedom of inquiry and expression, and the equality and dignity of all persons. That is why we are taking the government's request to develop a statement on freedom of expression so seriously, with discussions at town hall, General Faculties Councils, and other academic governance bodies.

The U of A's reputation for research leadership and excellence stems from this commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. From the humanities to the sciences, from creative arts to business, from health to engineering, and beyond. Our university rests on a broad base of research and scholarship.

Over the last year, the U of A attracted more than $500 million in external research funding, more than ever before. We lead the country in the number of NSERC Industrial Research Chairs and NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grants.

In July, three prestigious $2.5 million SSHRC Partnership Grants were awarded to U of A projects focused on how history is taught in K-12 classrooms, the preservation of Plains Cree and Tsuut'ina languages, and improvements to evidence-based testing for children.

Earlier this year, the federal government pledged $18.3 million to establish the Canadian Mountain Network and another $14.9 million to establish the Centre for Autonomous Systems.

Our success in attracting external funding is only one marker of our impact.

To the broader community, our research, scholarship and creative activity matter for different reasons. For them, it is the impact on them, on people they know, or the communities in which they live.

Because of the U of A's long history in transplant research, for example, someone's child, spouse, or parent is living a longer, healthier life.

Because of our research on canola, one of Canada's most important agriculture industries - and the many family farms that are part of it - were saved from nearly total devastation caused by blackleg disease.

Because of our recent community engaged research, municipal policy-makers now have a much greater understanding of how food insecurity is affecting low-income families right here in Edmonton.

Across the full breadth of disciplines, we can draw on examples that demonstrate the impact that our university's research on individuals and communities.

From this broad disciplinary depth, we have begun building signature teaching and research areas where we have the capacity to tackle complex, multi-faceted questions and problems through interdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration and partnership.

Over the last two years, many of you have come together and worked with the Provost and Vice-President (Research and Innovation) as well as the Signature Areas Development Panel to identify some of our greatest research and teaching strengths.

To date, four areas have been named. Each one of these areas brings together expertise and demonstrated national and global excellence from across faculties and disciplines. They begin from the premise that complex problems require a shift from individual excellence to collaborative excellence - and finding new interdisciplinary methods of approaching research questions and problems.

Energy Systems looks at the entire spectrum of how we produce, deliver and use energy, including, the sustainable development of fossil fuels, research on renewable energy, climate change and adaptation, pollution controls, land reclamation, water use, environmental law, community impacts, and more.

Researchers involved in Intersections of Gender recognize that human beings are made up of multiple, interconnected identities. This means that major global challenges - like inequality, social mobility, human migration, sexism, poverty, and racism - cannot be fully understood or solved without the recognition of how these factors inter-relate.

Precision Health also takes a big-picture approach to health and wellness. Precision Health focuses research strengths from across the university - strengths in complex health data, artificial intelligence, computational biology, social and health policy, and others - it focuses these strengths to improve health outcomes and health services benefiting Albertans and people around the world.

Through Situated Knowledge: Indigenous Peoples and Place the University of Alberta is poised to become a global leader in Indigenous-engaged research and teaching. This Signature Area builds on the U of A's longstanding commitment in this area - we are home to the only Faculty of Native Studies in North America, a Faculty of Education with a long history of Indigenous scholarship, the long-standing Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute, and one of the largest concentrations of Indigenous faculty members in Canada. SKIPP will build on these strengths to answer some of the most pressing issues facing Canada today.

Establishing signature areas like these is new to us - the whole process has been innovative, stemming, not from the executive team, but from groups of researchers finding common ground, and seeing new possibilities when they come together. Each group is defining their own priorities, governance structures, and programs and I want to thank everyone involved.

We have more than one objective for these signature areas.

In fact, when we first prioritized For the Public GoodFor the Public Good initiatives, the deans ranked signature areas as the #1.

Why? Because identifying these areas will help to position to the U of A for success in major collaborative research grant competitions, to create new programs and for students, and to attract new talent to areas of demonstrated excellence.

They also allow us to plan how best to target scarce resources and help us surface new and emerging areas of endeavor that will grow over time.

But the primary objective is for our university to play a lead role in addressing major global challenges - and to be conducting research that connects with partners and communities around the world to find solutions to these shared problems.

Knowing how our work can and does lead to such transformation is extremely motivating.

It motivates me to take on any challenge we face with a strong sense of purpose and a strong sense of what is possible when we work together to benefit of our students, our research, and the communities we serve.

When we look ahead to the coming year, there is, without a doubt, uncertainty, and change.

Key leadership roles are in transition: a new Board Chair, Kate Chisholm, was appointed only a few weeks ago, along with five other members of the board. The Board has embarked on a search for my successor and the Senate will soon be seeking nominations for the next Chancellor.

This kind of change is not new to us - and we have well-tested processes in place to ensure successful transitions.

Being uncertain about the outcome of the coming provincial budget is also not new to us. Each year as part of our own budget planning, we consider the provincial and federal context, develop potential scenarios, and establish our assumptions.

However, I recognize there is a heightened sense of uncertainty this year. With a new government in place - one that has the stated objective of reaching a balanced budget by the end of their four year term - we anticipate reductions in funding. We are now halfway through this fiscal year without a budget letter from the province - so the budget that will be tabled on October 24 will likely affect us immediately.

Today, I cannot tell you what exactly we can expect. We have not received any specific information from government on their plans for post-secondary education funding in the coming budget.

However, it is important to review what we do know.

Alberta has a deficit of $6.7 billion - and an accumulated debt of $60 billion, after a decade of annual deficits

As a first step, the government struck the MacKinnon Panel to review the province's spending and propose recommendations for reducing the deficit without increasing taxes. As you know, the report was released in early September with three recommendations specific to the post-secondary sector.

· The first was that government work with PSE stakeholders to decide on future directions and goals.

· The second was to examine the current and future financial viability of Alberta's institutions.

· Finally, the MacKinnon Report recommended a change in the funding sources for post-secondary institutions.

This final recommendation suggests aiming for a revenue mix comparable to that in British Columbia and Ontario. This would include less reliance on government grants, more funding from tuition and alternative revenue sources, and more entrepreneurial approaches to program financing and delivery. This strategy would include lifting the current freeze on tuition.

As I've already said, we do not know how the government will respond to the MacKinnon Report recommendations, but we must look closely at how our current funding compares to our U15 peers in anticipation of changes that may come.

Over the last few years, I have often shared data with you that show that the U of A receives the highest amount of provincial grant funding per student among Canada's U15 universities. When combined with tuition, the U of A spends more per student than any of our peers - approximately 2/3 comes from the government grant and 1/3 from tuition.

Over the last two decades, most of our peer institutions have seen enormous changes in their funding sources. They, like us, used to receive about 2/3 of their operating funding from government and 1/3 from tuition. Now, on average, slightly more than half of their revenue comes from tuition - a very different situation from ours.

Over this period, increased tuition has provided our peers the financial incentive to grow enrolment. At the U of A, however, domestic enrolments over the last decade here have remained relatively static - due to stable government enrolment targets and the lack of any tuition based incentives to grow.

The result of this high level of total funding is that the U of A has an enviable student-faculty ratio - currently one of the lowest in the country. We need to be aware that most of Canada's leading institutions have ratios that are much higher.

This difference underscores that our peers are both educating more students while depending much less on provincial government funding. At the same time, they are maintaining or increasing their reputation for research and teaching excellence.

It is this information that informs the MacKinnon Report's recommendation for a change in the revenue mix to Alberta's post-secondary institutions.

It is clear there will be difficult decisions ahead for all of Alberta's post-secondary institutions.

As we are all aware, cuts in the government grant can be offset by increases in tuition, but we cannot expect our students (and their families) to shoulder this burden alone.

We must plan to absorb cuts and find efficiencies.

This will not be easy.

We will not act reflexively.

We will make careful, considered choices.

The balance between tuition increases, on the one hand,….. and cuts, on the other, will be one of the most significant decisions our Board will make in the coming year.

As tuition rises, we must commit to ensuring that cost does not become a barrier to participation by students.

It is my commitment that we will set aside a meaningful portion of incremental tuition rate revenue to establish a significant needs-based bursary program for our most needy students.

I am also urging government to increase their support for needs-based financial assistance in this province.

We are fortunate in that we have some good news as well.

Our opportunities for enrolment growth are strong. Unlike institutions in many other Canadian provinces - as well as jurisdictions across North America, the UK, and Europe - the U of A does not face a shortage of incoming or prospective students. Demographics are on our side.

Alberta has a young population - over the last ten years domestic applications to U of A have steadily increased by 23%, driving up entrance averages. When we look at the K-12 population in schools today, we can see that the number of high school graduates looking for a spot in post-secondary will increase dramatically.

There is also enormous opportunity in terms of international students. International applications have increased more than 60% since 2015.

International undergraduate fees are set to cover the full cost of education and do not displace Canadian students. We will have the option of growing these enrolments.

There is additional good news. We currently have more physical space than any of our U15 peers, with the exception of University of Toronto. We have room to accept more students on campus and in residence.

Thus, we are in the enviable position of being able to consider if revenues generated by enrolment growth could help us deal with our financial pressures.

Enrolment growth could also help the province meet its educational needs. To meet the national average for participation rates, Alberta would need to open 45,000 post-secondary spaces today. With the projected increase in population - that shortage will grow to 90,000 spaces later in the next decade.

To prepare for the coming challenges, we will need to make substantive changes.

We need to identify administrative savings and redesign the work we do. We need to examine program structure, curriculum, and delivery. We need to look closely at academic workloads and teaching distribution. And, we need to examine how we're using our space and find ways to use it more effectively and efficiently. Our new Budget Model and our new infrastructure Asset Management Strategy will help us do that.

The changes that we must consider making are part of longer term, global trends in public funding of higher education. Institutions in other provinces, as well as in the US, UK, and Europe, have already faced severe reductions in public investment along with shrinking demographics. We are in a much more positive position than many of them - and we are in the fortunate position of being able to learn from them.

You have heard me say before that universities are among the most enduring institutions in the world. They endure because the people within them evolve and innovate. Our students thrive after they leave us because we've helped to instill in them the ability to ask difficult questions and to dive into solving complex problems.

We have the skills we need to find creative solutions to our coming challenges.

While we must continue to advocate for our core values, we cannot fight to simply stand still. We have a responsibility to work together to respond to our changing context, whether we like the context, or not.

We begin from a strong foundation: committed faculty and staff, excellent facilities, growing research success, high demand programs, and strong future demand.

We have also been developing plans for attracting alternative sources of revenue over the last several years - some of which paused under the last government. We can move forward fairly quickly if allowed to. We can operationalize our land trust, launch professional, course-based masters in some programs, and reinstitute market modifiers if appropriate. We will continue to build our fundraising capacity - our philanthropic support is strong, with the past four years being our best ever.

We have also moved forward on several For the Public Good strategies and goals that have put us on sound financial footing:

· We put our own house in order and succeeded in eliminating the structural deficit.

· We developed three-year budget planning, and are implementing a new activity-based budget model - which provides the transparency deans need to see how potential changes in enrolment, tuition and research activity could affect their budgets over time.

· None of that would be possible without enormous work being done on the university's data warehouse - giving us critical tools to make evidence-based decisions.

· We've also initiated the UniForum Program - to help us understand better the university's broad and complex administrative systems and to be able to bench mark our services and costs against some of the best universities in the world.

In addition to these initiatives, major reviews and reforms of our bicameral governance system have taken place - ensuring that GFC and the Board, and their respective committees, have clarified roles and responsibilities. With this work done, we are working together to make better strategic decisions.

We now have the tools that can show us areas of redundancy and inefficiency.

Through our commitment to be creative and innovative we can imagine the possibilities that exist with positive change.

I want to stress again that we are being called to respond to trends that extend beyond our province and country. The changes we make now will be with us for decades - we have a responsibility to handle these changes as well as we possibly can.

Most of the choices will occur at local, department, division, and faculty levels - where decisions about administrative efficiency, curriculum, program delivery, program closures, and workloads rightly take place.

No one is alone in this work - we have colleagues here at the U of A and in other departments and universities across Canada who have been here before. Each of us must reach out to them for ideas - and learn from their experience.

Ultimately, these are not somebody else's challenges to solve.

Each of us has a role to play.

Like so many of you, I believe that education and research are truly two of the most transformative forces in life and in society. We are privileged to play a role in that transformation.

Universities matter because they matter to individuals and to communities. As we face the challenges of the coming weeks months and years, let us keep our focus on ensuring that we continue to build a university …..

… that meets the evolving needs of our students, who are the next generation of citizens and leaders….

… that enables excellence in teaching, research, scholarship, and creative activities, and

…. that engages local, national, and international communities and partners to address questions, seek solutions, and make discoveries that improve the social, cultural, economic, and physical well-being of many.

My thanks to each of you for all that you do for the U of A.

Thank you for all that you will do in the coming months and years to work together to enhance this strong, resilient, vibrant, and leading institution of higher education and research.

Together, let us continue to build one of the world's great universities for the public good.

Thank you.