Alberta’s post-secondary sector will be tasked with training and recognizing more workers to combat the province’s shortage of health care professionals.
Premier Danielle Smith’s mandate letter to the minister of advanced education, which was issued on Wednesday, places a focus on increasing seats for students in medical fields of study.
This includes a mandate to work with Alberta’s established medical schools at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta to work with local post-secondary students to train doctors who can step into positions in rural communities , the areas most struggling to recruit and retain physicians.
“We have a critical role to play in helping to address these issues and address some of the labor and workforce shortages that we’re seeing,” Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in an interview with Postmedia said.
“We have world-class medical schools at our universities. We also have world-class facilities in all corners of our province. . . I believe there is a very good opportunity to partner with our medical schools and find opportunities for them to partner with a community college or polytechnic institution to offer more physician and other health care related programming.”
Schools such as the University of Lethbridge and Grande Prairie’s Northwestern Polytechnic could be among those selected to offer local physician training, according to the mandate letter.
Smith also asked Nicolaides to work with the Department of Health to expand bridging, post-secondary programs designed to provide home-schooled immigrants with additional education and credentialing to allow them to enter Alberta entering the workforce.
Specifically, this will include building on a recent agreement between Alberta and the Philippine government to recruit Filipino registered and licensed practical nurses for local jobs.
“Often these individuals, and not just from the Philippines but from other countries, will move to Canada and have to pay thousands of dollars to have their credentials assessed, and that can take a significant period of time,” Nicolaides said, citing waiting lists . can be years.
“It’s not ideal, it doesn’t help them, it doesn’t help the province, and we hope to be able to tackle some of those issues.”
In addition to strengthening health education, the mandate letter seeks to continue adding seats for “high demand programs,” an ongoing targeted enrollment expansion aimed at sectors with labor gaps.
The letter is the latest in a series fired by Smith to her cabinet ministers as the new prime minister sets the agenda for her United Conservative Party ahead of the May 2023 general election.
Most of those letters placed a heavy emphasis on affordability, but that topic is absent from the advanced education to-do list, despite annual increases in tuition at most of Alberta’s post-secondary schools over the past three years. At the U of C, overall tuition increases have averaged 25 percent since 2019.
That’s a concern for opposition NDP progressive education critic David Eggen, who said affordability mandates are conspicuously absent.
“(The UCP) built barriers that excluded thousands of people from being able to afford to go to school,” Eggen said.
“You say, ‘we want more doctors and nurses and care aids’ and so on, but a big chance if you can’t afford to go. There are many Albertans who would like to study. Without acknowledging the obvious affordability issue, this letter is not relevant to many people’s needs.”
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Nicolaides argued Alberta tuition costs are in line with national averages and said the province has a cap on annual tuition increases to “limit irregular increases,” which is a maximum seven percent annual increase for domestic students. He said the province has also invested in student loan assistance and scholarships and bursaries to help students afford education.
Elsewhere in the letter, Smith asked Nicolaides to recommend how to create teaching certificates to enable skilled trades instructors to teach in junior and senior high schools. She also told him to ensure that schools “adequately protect the academic freedom and free speech of students and faculty.”
That last item is a “right-wing trope” that is an unwelcome intrusion on schools, Eggen charged.
“Universities, colleges and polytechnics are doing a good job of promoting diversity of freedom of speech, and they don’t need the right-wing ideology of the CCP government to tell them how to do it,” he said.