Paul Bowles: B.C. budget reveals postsecondary education low on list of government priorities

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      By Paul Bowles

      Budget speeches are typically full of numbers and rhetoric, but underneath they reveal political choices. They tell us about what priorities the government has and what government thinks its role is in the economy. So what does the 2010 B.C. budget tell us?

      Let’s start with the priorities and, in particular, where postsecondary education lies. The figures announced in the budget essentially show that universities and colleges will be receiving the same number of dollars in each of the next three years. The government calls this “stable” funding and “protecting” education. In fact, it is neither. It actually means cuts. Postsecondary institutions may get the same number of dollars each year, but their costs keep rising. The costs of the things that universities buy, like technology, library acquisitions, and software licensing agreements, all increase year after year and typically by more than the rate of consumer price inflation. That’s why in the United States they use a special index, the Higher Education Price Index, to more accurately measure the cost pressures in the higher education sector.

      The fact that funding is frozen, but costs will inevitably go up over the next three years, means that universities will have to find savings from somewhere. This typically means bigger classes, less support for students, and fewer new faculty positions. Despite years of seeing increasing student numbers and rising costs eat away at educational quality, the belt-tightening at universities across the province will continue. And there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. The government has said that when it gets back to a balanced budget, any surpluses will be used to pay down the debt.

      So, if you want to know what the budget says about where postsecondary education sits on the government’s priority list, it is well below deficit reduction and debt repayment. These fiscal measures are of greater importance to government than the need to preserve and increase the quality of the province’s postsecondary education.

      That also tells us a good deal about what the government thinks its role is in the economy. Its mantra is that B.C.’s “competitive advantage”, as it likes to call it, is in lower taxes and balanced budgets. Despite the fact that the global economic crisis has shaken the belief in the efficacy of these free market, minimal government approaches just about everywhere else, our provincial government clings to the belief that all will be well if it keeps taxes low and doesn’t run a deficit. The collapse in revenues has blown government off course a bit, but its priority is to get “back to normal” as quickly as possible.

      With governments committed to this approach, postsecondary education is always going to be struggling. Economist Milton Friedman became famous for saying that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. With respect to postsecondary education, he is actually right. If you want a high-quality, accessible public postsecondary education system, then you have to pay for it. The idea that you can have low tax rates and high-quality public postsecondary education requires a very high rate of economic growth. More typically, if you want good-quality public services, as in the Scandinavian countries for example, then you need higher tax rates to pay for these superior services.

      And therein lies the problem for postsecondary education in B.C. Successive governments have been elected promising to cut taxes. The result has been that over the past two to three decades, the proportion of provincial GDP collected as tax revenue has fallen from around 20 percent to around 15 percent. At the same time, federal transfers have also been reduced. The result is fewer resources to fund public services including postsecondary education.

      So, the message from the March 2 budget was to brace our postsecondary institutions for more belt tightening and don’t expect a change anytime soon. If we continue to believe that B.C.’s “competitive advantage” can only be built on low taxes, then we are doomed to a struggling postsecondary education sector and diminished public services.

      Paul Bowles is the president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia.




      Mar 7, 2010 at 1:42pm

      Excellent article. Campbell's higher-education policy is dimwitted and shortsighted. With respect to colleges and universities, his Liberal government is easily the worst since the early 1980s and Vander Zalm's Socred's (i.e., the same party).


      Mar 8, 2010 at 3:19pm

      I was just trying to think off-hand of any professor of economics at UBC, SFU, or UVic who has offered any public criticism in recent years of any economic or fiscal policy of the BC Liberal Govt. I can't think of even one. Prof Bowles commentary is something of a first, and it wouldn't surprise me if it's also a last for a very long time.

      The majority of BC's university economists are Liberal adherents federally and were particularly keen supporters of Dion's Green Shift, as well as the BC Carbon Tax. Yet since Dion left and Ignatieff officially ditched the Green Shift, they have offered no criticism of that policy change despite having vehemently excoriated the NDP and the Conservatives in the last federal election for not supporting Dion's approach. In addition, they are very vocal supporters of the HST.

      And they sure don't want Carole James to become Premier and bring back the dreaded tuition freeze.

      Adding it all up, even if they did disagree with some of the BC Liberals' policy measures they would be very, very reluctant to express that in a media column. Many of them are quite happy, though, to strongly ciriticize the opposition NDP in CanWest op-ed pieces that read as if they were written in the BC Govt's Public Affairs Bureau.

      Rod Smelser


      Mar 11, 2010 at 8:03pm

      RodS: SFU's Marvin Shaffer is one of the few experts challenging Gordo's disastrous energy policy. He has explained the problems on many occasions, but few people understand where the "self sufficiency" slogan is taking us. That may be one reason why education is low on Gordo's list of priorities - can't have the taxpayers understanding economics.


      Mar 12, 2010 at 8:58am

      Fran, you're right. Marvin Shaffer has done work on the BC Govt's energy policy, in particular its peculiar requirements for self-sufficiency and the way in which those requirements lead to a contrived demand for more expensive local "green" projects.

      I wasn't thinking of Dr Shaffer, though, because he's an Adjunct Prof at the Public Policy Program rather than in the Dept of Economics.

      For his troubles Shaffer has been harshly critiqued in a paper by a full-time SFU Prof (someone making well over $100K per year) who teaches in the School of Resource and Environmental Management. Economists who do criticize Liberal Govt policy are likely therefore to be shunned and ostracized. Incidentally, the paper denouncing Shaffer was paid for by, ... you guessed it, ... the IPP industry association. Neat, eh?

      Rod Smelser