Economic impact of the University of Lethbridge on the Community

This post provides a discussion on the value of our University and ULFA members within the community, to provide background for positions on compensation that are likely to be a crucial piece of our negotiations this semester. This post is a continuation of the information presented on Cost of Living Adjustments and Schedule A.

Impact of ULFA membership within the community

From its inception, The University of Lethbridge has been about community. Over fifty years ago, a small community joined together and pressured the provincial government until they relented, giving rise to The University of Lethbridge.

The ivory tower is a myth: we are not cloistered away beneath books and lab equipment, although we enjoy making use of both. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a small city like Lethbridge. It was rare, pre-pandemic, to venture out—even for a short trip to the corner store—without running into a colleague or student. We are not separate from the community. Public sector workers are “regular Albertans,” despite what some might claim.

The University contributes to the Lethbridge community both economically and culturally. The influence of the University on the relatively small city of Lethbridge is seen economically with the influx of students. Ten percent of the population of the city is students, and 40% of students are from out of town. Grocery stores, landlords, small businesses, restaurants, bars, perhaps even dispensaries, all benefit from the large student population. But more than just our students, faculty also bring money to Lethbridge in the form of grants from provincial and federal governments, private foundations, and international agencies. Students attending the University of Lethbridge contribute over $100 million to the local economy each year. 

The University provides enrichment not just economically; there are intangible benefits, as well. Post secondary institutions—specifically, the people—create a more diverse local culture. The University brings students in from across the province, country, and globe, making our city in southern Alberta into a culturally diverse urban hub and maintaining a young population. These new Lethbridge citizens—not just students, but new faculty and staff and their families—are adopters of new technologies, practices, and therapies. The influx and development of these new ideas can help to prevent both population and economic stagnation or even decline. For example, West Lethbridge has increased its population from 27,000 in 2006 to over 40,000 in 2019. Many graduates from the University stay in Lethbridge, whether they are local to the area or not, and contribute to the local cultural milieu. And of course, postsecondary institutions teach reasoning, critical thinking, gathering and interpretation of data, all of those skills that, together, can be summarized as creating more capable, empowered, and informed citizens. 

A little reflection, however, demonstrates that these intangible, cultural benefits do indeed also have economic benefits. Simply attracting people to Lethbridge means that those who stay are likely to contribute to our important sectors, including agriculture, health, education, environment, etc. The diversity of the culture the University promotes will attract new business opportunities, new industries (particularly technology), and help diversify the economy, as well. Of course, a growing, educated population means a growing tax base.

Faculty and staff contribute to their communities daily, through coaching sports, engaging with the local arts scene, and more. The visual arts and dramatic arts are exceptionally well-represented here. Exceptional training in music is offered to the Lethbridge community at Casa through our Music Conservatory. Faculty contribute to the local community in the same way other Lethbridge citizens do. The U of L’s facilities are also used for many community programs and events.

Despite all of these benefits provided to the community, it is still fair to ask what sacrifices faculty members are willing to make, and have already made, given the economic climate and the austerity measures our provincial government is mandating. It is important to note that the University of Lethbridge faculty have already absorbed a rollback in 2013 (when none of the other Alberta institutions in our sector did), followed by several years of 0% cost of living pay adjustments. Further, many ULFA members have taken early retirement, and through the cost savings resulting from such retirements the financial savings sought from the ULFA Collective Agreement for the University budget have already been met. ULFA has also offered multiple times to extend the current collective agreement (with 0% COLA), recognizing that some things can wait while we are all dealing with a global pandemic.

The proposed 4% cuts to academic and support staff salaries, retroactive by more than a year, do not simply distress individual employees; indeed, the very community that pushed for the creation of this institution will suffer both tangible and intangible effects due to these changes, of a type often referred to by the gentle term “rollbacks.”

Economically, the University is the second-largest employer in the city. In much the same way the economy in Alberta was devastated when the energy sector took deep cuts, the same will be true of Lethbridge with the proposed cuts and salary rollbacks to the post secondary education system. Annual salaries at the University of Lethbridge account for roughly $130 million, and we are economically entwined in this community: every ten jobs lost at the university translates into one other job loss in the local economy from knock-on effects. With salaries already 10%-15% lower than other similar Universities, it is already difficult enough to attract and retain top talent, before an additional retroactive rollback. 

Thus, cutting salaries for University staff obviously means a lower level of  economic benefits for our city, but it also means lower quality of education. As salaries continue this downward slide it becomes increasingly more difficult to hire good quality instructors and scholars and more difficult to keep good ones here in Lethbridge. The cheapest professors are very unlikely to be excellent or even average. It seems strange to say it but we are literally striving to be compensated as the average.

The University of Lethbridge is a vital institution for Lethbridge, both economically and culturally. It will be instrumental in the province’s economic recovery as well as its economic diversification, important given the volatility of the oil and gas sector. Salary cuts affect not just individual professors and their families but ripple out into the community. As we begin to recover from COVID and return to something resembling our former lives, as small businesses and the economy in Lethbridge begin to stand again on shaky legs, is this really the time to remove millions of dollars from the local economy?

You can follow the status of all Articles opened during this round of negotiations here.