University presidents pitch missed-opportunity agenda for B.C.


By Ian Boyko

The presidents of B.C.’s six research universities have considerable clout. The public institutions that they are paid handsomely to oversee collectively receive $1.1 billion in funding from the B.C. government every year.

Their lobbying wing, the Research Universities’ Council of British Columbia, is funded by “members” (read: the public, the main contributor to universities), and because reputation (not solidarity) means everything to university presidents, the RUCBC excludes institutions like Vancouver Island University and Capilano University, who have the audacity to focus more on undergraduate teaching than “world-leading” research.

These presidents garnered pretty significant media attention recently with their submission to the public consultations for next spring’s provincial budget, which they’ve titled “Opportunity Agenda for B.C.” After they met with editorial boards to pitch the proposals, the major dailies in Vancouver and Victoria ran supportive editorials.

Whomever is in charge of public relations at the RUCBC deserves a promotion, because these high-profile proposals are weak and not deserving of the attention they were given.

The brief’s three demands—an increase in campus capacity, an increase in student financial aid, and an increase amount of private sector partnerships—are astonishingly timid.

The capacity demand (11,000 new spaces) only covers one-half of the proposed increase to international students that the Christy Clark government proposed last spring, let alone expected Canadian enrolment growth.

But it’s the RUCBC’s proposal for a new grants program for students that is bordering on offensive when the whole context is considered.

For starters, it was university presidents who lobbied aggressively to end the popular and effective tuition fee freeze. When they were successful in 2002, they engineered the steepest tuition fee increases in B.C.’s history, causing fees to double by 2005.

It is also worth noting that when the B.C. Liberal government eliminated the grants program in 2004, not a word of protest was heard from university presidents.

So now fast-forward to 2012, when British Columbian families have paid roughly $6 billion collectively in higher tuition fees thanks to RUCBC’s efforts, what’s its plan for restoring affordability?

A $36 million grant program, worth $1,500 to 24,000 recipients, or less than one-third of undergraduate tuition fees for one in eight students.

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix has publicly committed to restoring a grant program with three times the budget, and feels so strongly about it that he has declared that he will raise taxes on financial institutions to pay for it.

With infinitely less to lose than Dix in making expensive proposals (and infinitely more responsible for record-high tuition fees), university presidents have been so faint-hearted in their demands that it undermines the efforts of others who seek to make sweeping changes.

University presidents declare that postsecondary education is the best investment that the government can make in the future of B.C. If so, why make such a splash with such modest demands?

An election year, combined with the considerable clout enjoyed by university presidents, should have prompted far more ambitious proposals from RUCBC to restore affordability at our publicly-funded universities and colleges. Instead, the university presidents’ so-called “Opportunity Agenda” is an opportunity missed.

Ian Boyko is the research and communications officer for the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia.

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I do question some of the conclusions in the study in that tons of university grads in many fields have a horrible time finding work. In fact, many academic areas are producing too many grads for the jobs available so I think we need to be very careful about painting the entire job market with a broad brush.
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