Students south of the Fraser River facing education gap

There aren’t enough schools for all those young people living south of the Fraser.

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      Surrey academic superstar Harmann Grewal knows he has got it easier than most of his former classmates from the Princess Margaret Secondary School grad class of 2010. The 18-year-old sailed into his first-year science courses at Kwantlen Polytechnic University with an entrance scholarship worth $5,000. The school is a five-minute drive from his family’s home. Kwantlen, he said, suits his desire for a reasonably priced, short-commute, small-class university experience. So for him, it’s good news all around. But for some of his buddies, not so much.

      “A lot of people [from Princess Margaret] want to get accepted into sciences at Kwantlen,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Surrey. “But there’s no spots. So they take spaces in arts or other areas they’re not really interested in, areas that are definitely not on their career path.”

      Grewal’s early easy ride doesn’t mean there’s no challenge ahead. He’ll spend his first two years at Kwantlen’s Surrey campus, earning transfer credits. Then, because no institution south of the Fraser River offers a program in pharmacology—what he ultimately wants to study—he’ll commute, as does his older brother, to the University of B.C.’s Point Grey campus. On the bus, that’s 1.5 hours each way.

      For thousands of bright teens such as Grewal who live south of the Fraser, B.C.’s Lower Mainland has a big problem. From Abbotsford in the east to Delta in the west, there are only three public postsecondary schools—Kwantlen, SFU Surrey, and the University of the Fraser Valley—offering a total of 18,113 full-time equivalent (FTE) seats, according to numbers compiled by the B.C. Electronic Library Network, a partnership between the province and 30 postsecondary libraries that is housed at SFU. That barely touches the need. Within five years, the Fraser region will be home to more than 200,000 18- to 29-year-olds—the age group most likely to attend postsecondary—according to figures compiled by Simon Fraser University’s Institutional Research and Planning (IRP) office.

      North of the Fraser, though, from Vancouver and the North Shore to New Westminster and Coquitlam, it’s a different world. There are 105,239 seats between the nine public postsecondary institutions there—almost six times as many as south of the river. To make the imbalance sting even more, an SFU IRP chart illustrating population projections in B.C. regions shows the Lower Mainland as being home to fewer than 150,000 18- to 29-year-olds by 2018.

      Fewer seats with more potential students versus more seats with fewer potential students.

      This demographic debacle has loomed for years. And, finally, Surrey is speaking out.

      On October 19, the Surrey Board of Trade released a paper called “Education Today, Productivity Tomorrow”, in partnership with SFU, Kwantlen, the Surrey school district, and the City of Surrey. It’s a call to the province to invest in education in Surrey, from the primary to the postsecondary level. The fear is that potential students turned away south of the Fraser because of lack of seats won’t attend postsecondary if alternative schools are too far away—and, thus, expensive or inconvenient to attend.

      The numbers tell this tale. In the Vancouver/Langara region, almost 65 percent of the 2008 grad class had registered at postsecondary institutions by 2009, according to the province’s Ministry of Advanced Education Student Transitions Project. In the Kwantlen region, 59 percent had. But in the Fraser Valley region, just over 41 percent had done so.

      In other words, for every 100 high-school grads, Vancouver sends about 24 more to college and university than does the Fraser Valley. Some argue that’s simply a matter of local postsecondary capacity.

      Is the Ministry of Education taking this seriously enough? At least one administrator doesn’t think it’ll be sorted out anytime soon.

      This September marked the second fall semester SFU Surrey offered classes. There were 1,800 applicants for 600 first-year seats, according to Joanne Curry, the campus executive director. In a telephone interview with the Straight, she recalled that back in 2006 the province promised to double SFU Surrey’s student spots. That would take the campus from about 2,500 FTE seats to 5,000 by 2015.

      “Then the recession hit,” Curry said. Is that target still possible? “We hope so, but it will be a challenge, clearly.”¦It really depends on when the province is able to commit the money.”

      Similarly, the University of the Fraser Valley is running at 104 percent capacity this semester, according to the vice president of external affairs, Karola Stinson. The student body grew by a third between 2005 and 2009, Stinson explained to the Straight in a phone interview. And UFV is not expecting more in provincial per-student operating grants anytime soon, she said.

      This crush of students was anticipated in the government’s 2007 postsecondary review, Campus 2020: Thinking Ahead. In it, former attorney general Geoff Plant wrote: “Existing rates of post-secondary participation are low south of the Fraser River. The recent addition of the SFU Campus in Surrey should make a difference. But even its submission pointed out the great deal of work necessary to increase participation and attainment rates in the towns and cities served by Kwantlen University College and the University College of the Fraser Valley. My proposal is that the three remaining university colleges (Kwantlen University College, Malaspina University College and the University College of the Fraser Valley), together with Thompson Rivers University, become statutorily designated as regional universities.”

      These changes happened, but the soon-to-be 200,000 potential students south of the river will not squeeze into 18,113 seats.

      That’s a crisis, according to NDP advanced-education critic Dawn Black. She told the Straight in a phone interview that on April 8 she sent a letter to the then–minister of advanced education, Moira Stilwell. Kwantlen, the letter reads, is drastically underfunded based on the size of the community it serves. There are just 10 FTE seats per 1,000 population, compared to 20 FTE seats per 1,000 at other postsecondary institutions in the province. Kwantlen, she wrote, could accommodate another 7,000 FTE students if additional funding were provided.

      “Residents in the region are concerned that an inadequate amount of the tax dollars they contribute to postsecondary education are being reinvested in services in their region,” the letter reads.

      Indeed, in 2009-10—according to the provincial student-funding formula—the 1.03 million citizens in the Fraser region saw $167.1 million in postsecondary operating funding. That’s just one-sixth of what the 1.27 million citizens north of the Fraser in the Lower Mainland saw: $971.1 million.

      “What this points to is if we don’t make available seats that are real, we’re going to lose that talent,” Black told the Straight on October 18. “But they [the government] haven’t got that kind of commitment.”

      Black pointed to Stilwell’s response letter of June 9. In it, she reels off numbers showing that the Boundary–Fraser Valley region (which includes UFV, SFU Burnaby and Surrey, Kwantlen, and north-of-the-Fraser institutions BCIT, Douglas College, and the Justice Institute of B.C.) has already been helped. That region, she said, is home to 41 percent of the province’s 18- to 29-year-olds and receives 28 percent of B.C.’s postsecondary operating-grant funding. She added that at Kwantlen, the ministry has funded 18.1 percent more FTE seats since 2001.

      “British Columbia continues to have one of the most accessible and affordable public postsecondary systems in the country,” the letter reads, “and the provincial government remains committed to a system that is affordable to both students and taxpayers, and is sustainable over the long term.”

      Black was appalled. “This letter was just justifying why there’s no change,” she told the Straight. “This is not an economy that depends on fishing and forestry. We have to move into a knowledge economy.”¦We have a [projected] 160,000 skill[ed-worker] shortage in our near future.”

      Stilwell refused to comment before the Straight’s deadline. And the ministry’s communications department refused to provide detailed answers to the Straight’s questions about planning for the region.

      (Transit, however, has stepped into this mix as a potential partial problem solver. Langara College sits on the Canada Line. Just two stops south, buses from White Rock, Delta, and Richmond can drop students at Bridgeport for a quick commute over the river to 49th and Cambie, a two-minute walk to Langara. However, while the province has spent $74.9 million on capital projects at Langara since 2001, actual seats have only increased by 440 since 2003, according to the Langara fact sheet posted on the B.C. government website. Currently, the campus is running at 101.2-percent capacity.)

      Standing outside the public system, the private and Christian Trinity Western University serves 2,800 students on its small main campus in Langley. It’s also feeling the pressure. Tuition is about double that at public institutions but local enrollment has surged by 25 percent since 2006. It’s also the only campus south of the Fraser with a significant on-campus residence—a third of its students live in dorms.

      Tim Shulba, the school’s director of marketing, questions whether or not students get the most out of postsecondary education when they live at home, work, and commute—the model that regional institutions espouse.

      “Then, it’s less about the experience and more about, ”˜What do I need to do to get a job?’ ” Shulba told the Straight in a phone interview. He expounded on the ideal of moving away from home and into residence, making lifelong friendships, joining clubs, and immersing oneself in school. “From our perspective, you don’t get the most out of your education if you’re just going to class and leaving.”

      TWU relies on privately funded scholarships to make the more American-style school experience happen for its student body. Shulba has touched on a topic that other suburban postsecondary institutions struggle with: how to serve potential students who may need to work 20 or more hours a week and commute to get to class.

      Family incomes are lower south of the Fraser, on average. And the education level of parents—one of the primary indicators of whether or not a child will go on to postsecondary—is also lower. For example, in North Vancouver, 64.7 percent of adults have completed a degree, diploma, or trade certification. In Abbotsford, just 43.3 percent have. Splurging for a dorm-centric University of Toronto experience isn’t in the cards for many 18-year-olds in Whalley.

      It’s a thought provoker for Matt Todd, who said he spends as much as three hours a day travelling by public transit from his home in White Rock to class in Surrey and back. But as the Kwantlen Student Association’s director of external affairs, he also knows that for blue-collar kids, school sometimes just has to be about school.

      “We call ourselves a commuter school. Most kids don’t hang around after class to socialize. They’re either waiting for class to start or going home,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “If your choice is between going to university [and working and commuting] or not going, I think you should go to university.”¦This is just an economic reality of making university education accessible to more students.”

      Indeed, UFV’s Stinson noted that delivering education south of the Fraser can’t be compared to doing the same elsewhere. Accessibility is the university’s primary mission—one that’s challenged when demand is so high. How do you decide who gets to attend? Grade restrictions? Forcing students to transfer out after two years?

      “It’s something we’re thinking about and worrying about a lot,” she said. “We attract a lot of students who have no other postsecondary credentials in their family, and people who need to do Math 12 over and over until they get a B [as a prerequisite for acceptance into a program]. We don’t want to lose that. It’s a conundrum.”

      For Grewal, who is six weeks into his university career, attending Kwantlen as a commuter student has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, he hasn’t made any new friends yet—which would be unimaginable if he lived in a residence. On the other hand, he can afford to go to university.

      But for many of his peers in the south-of-the-Fraser grad class of 2010, a university seat—the basic promise of regional postsecondary—hasn’t been delivered.