Western Canada seems to be hogging all of the economic headlines lately. Highest job growth in the country. Soaring wages. Construction activity leading all provinces. It goes on and on. No matter what economic indica- tor you look at, the West " and particularly Alberta " seems to be at the high end of the bragging scale.

But a report from Statistics Canada back in November quietly revealed that parts of the West are lagging far behind in one area: university enrolment. Between the 1999-2000 and 2004-05 academic years, university enrolment in Alberta rose by only 8.0 percent. In Saskatchewan, it rose an even weaker 4.1 percent. This compares with a national average of 19.7 percent. Ontario led the country with growth of 32.4 percent.

If we adjust these figures to account for population growth, the numbers are even more striking. Ontario’s population-adjusted growth in enrolment is 24.9 percent. In Saskatchewan " which has actually lost population since 2000 " the gain in enrolment is 5.9 percent. But in Alberta, adjusting for the 9.1 percent population growth since 2000, university enrolment has actually fallen by 1.1 percent.

The implication is troubling for Alberta. Education is, of course, proba- bly the single most significant indicator of future economic prosperity and wealth creation. While the energy-rich province is leading the country in every category of economic growth, it is lagging far behind in growth in uni- versity enrolment.

So what’s going on? And what does it mean for Alberta’s long-term prosperity?

The first thing to note is that ”œuni- versity” is not synonymous with ”œpost-secondary education.” Trades schools, technical colleges, apprentice- ship programs and vocational centres are all part of post-secondary educa- tion. The Statistics Canada report cov- ers only enrolment in universities. And in economic terms, students com- ing out of the trades and vocational schools are in many cases in much higher demand than some of the tradi- tional university graduates.

Enrolment in the non-university trades schools in Alberta has been ris- ing strongly, and is set to rise further still. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton has recently announced a new campus " part of a $750 million campus expan- sion plan " which will feature five Centres of Excellence and be home to 12,600 students by 2016. Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Mount Royal College, Bow Valley College and the Alberta College of Art and Design are currently in the midst of their own aggressive expansion campaigns.

Second, Alberta’s low growth in university enrolment has not been due entirely to a lack of interest. The University of Calgary is packed to the rafters, and the school routinely turns away thousands of hopeful applicants each year. There simply are not enough classrooms, instructors, lab benches or computer terminals on the campus to accommodate the demand. This pushes a lot of prospective stu- dents into the other post-secondary options, such as the trades and vocational colleges mentioned above.

But perhaps the most frightening reason why university enrolment is not growing in Alberta is the labour short- ages that continue to besiege the province. Traditionally, the main rationale for many students enrolling in university was that jobs were scarce. It’s hard to find good work with a grade 12 education, and most of us at age 17 had no idea what we wanted to do with our lives. University exposed us to dif- ferent options, gave us hope of finding good jobs when we finished and prolonged the search for ”œa career.”

Now, in Alberta, there are hundreds of well-paying jobs requiring very little skill or education. Why pay thou- sands of dollars to sit in classrooms, write term papers and face the dread of final exams when you can be making more money per year than your dad ever earned at the peak of his career? These reasons help explain why Alberta’s university enrolment has grown so weakly over the past five years. But it will be interesting to see how enrolment growth fares over the nexfive years. The province is at a critical point in its history.

To his credit, Ralph Klein demonstrated a commitment to education in the 2006 spring budget: $750 million for advanced education endowments, $1.3 billion to the Medical Research Endowment Fund and $500 million for the Scholarship Fund.

Alberta’s new premier, Ed Stelmach, has so far given little detail as to what he intends to do on the post-secondary education file. From his campaign suggestions, he will encourage students to focus more on a particular interest (such as a trade) before they leave high school, and increase the number of bursaries and scholarships available to post-secondary students. It’s thin soup for what is the key to ensuring long-term prosperity in the province.

As we enter 2007, Premier Stelmach needs to commit to excellence in Alberta’s university and post-secondary system. Long-term, predictable and stable funding is what the colleges and uni- versities need, rather than the erratic and feast-or-famine funding schedules that have marked the past.