Victoria wants B.C. to have the highest education level in the country; a 102-page report points the way.
Former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant has elicited praise from representatives of students, university administrators, and faculty members for a plan dealing with postsecondary education. However, student representatives also expressed concern over Plant's reluctance to call for substantial adjustments in tuition.
On April 23, the B.C. government released Plant's 102-page Campus 2020: Thinking Ahead report, nine months after Premier Gordon Campbell launched a consultation process on postsecondary education. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Plant said he hopes the plan and its wide-ranging set of 52 recommendations will guide the government's actions until 2020.
"I've tried to recommend that some structures be put in place to help the sector as a whole do the best job it possibly can of making sure that we realize this very ambitious target that the government has set: of being the best-educated jurisdiction in North America by 2015," Plant said.
To accomplish this, Plant called for the creation of a "higher education board" that would "facilitate collaboration and planning". He said it would resemble the B.C. Progress Board, which reports on how the government compares with other jurisdictions in many areas of public policy.
Plant also recommended precluding community colleges from granting degrees. In addition, he called for the elimination of the statutory designation of "applied degrees", and called for the creation of "regional universities".
Plant also recommended the following new names: Kwantlen University, Malaspina University, and Fraser Valley University; they could all grant bachelor's degrees. The government is studying the report.
Skip Bassford, president of the University College Consortium, praised one recommendation to repeal the statutory designation "university college" in favour of "regional university". "I was really pleased to see with respect to the university colleges, Geoff had clearly listened to presentations when he was out here," Bassford, president of UCFV, said. "He had read carefully what we had all sent in, and accepted pretty much what we thought as a future."
However, only the four provincial universities–UBC, UVic, SFU, and UNBC–would be allowed to grant doctoral degrees. Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia, gave the thumbs up to this particular recommendation.
Clift said he had concerns about the potential impact of the recommendations on Royal Roads University, which grants degrees to many who are already in the workforce. He suggested that Plant's call for a Higher Education Presidents' Council could result in greater coordination within the system, which he felt would be an improvement.
There has been no big-picture discussion about what it means to grant a degree, Clift said, "in part because we've had these overlapping and ill-defined boundaries".
In addition, Plant's report listed specific targets for 2015, including: having the highest level of participation in postsecondary education in Canada; enrolling more graduate students and conferring more postsecondary credentials–as well as more completed career and vocational training and apprenticeships–per capita than any other province; and achieving the highest level of literacy in Canada.
There are several other targets, including these: for 2020 rates of aboriginal postsecondary participation and attainment equal to the rates of the general population; and a 50-percent reduction in the proportion of B.C. adults not achieving high-school equivalency by the age of 30.
"For me, the most important point of the report is to try to encourage government to move forward on the basis of two distinct but, I think, complementary bases," Plant said. "One is to maintain and build on a legacy that says regional access to postsecondary education is important."
He said the other goal is to promote excellence and ensure that the three major universities in the southwest corner of B.C. become among the world's best. "It is worth achieving because of the tremendous spinoffs–both economic and social, and, frankly, cultural–of having truly leading universities in your midst," Plant said.
Clift said that he is pleased that Plant included targets, and he recommended that government provide the necessary funding to achieve them. Clift also praised the report for including a "coherent" set of recommendations.
However, Shamus Reid, B.C. spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, described the Campus 2020 report as a "hit-and-miss" document, although he praised Plant's recommendation that tuition fees for adult basic education be eliminated. However, Reid said Plant failed to take into consideration some of the concerns of students and faculty members.
"There is a disturbing emphasis on commercialization and privatization in the postsecondary system, which I think goes against what a lot of the stakeholders said during the process," Reid said. "Of course, the students are not happy with the recommendations on tuition fees, and those run counter to what students said in all areas of the province."
The UBC Alma Mater Society filed a submission to Plant citing a decline in students' satisfaction with the quality of their university education and suggesting that the province should encourage UBC to be a "leader in teaching and learning research". Plant followed through with a recommendation for a new "Pacific Centre of Excellence in Learning Innovation" by 2009. Plant also called for 95 percent of all provincial research funding to go to UBC, SFU, and UVic.
All B.C. public-school teachers must be licensed by the British Columbia College of Teachers. But there is no licensing requirement for university and college instructors. Plant said he chose not to address this because he wanted to preserve "institutional autonomy" and he didn't want to propose any change in the employment relationship between faculty members and their employers.
"Students certainly made lots of presentations and submissions to me," Plant said, "but I don't think I heard a single presentation from a student body in which any concern was expressed about the issue of accountability for the quality or competence of instructors."
UBC AMS president Jeff Friedrich told the Straight that the quality of postsecondary education could be improved if institutions paid more attention to teaching excellence when making hiring decisions or granting tenure to a professor. "The data suggests that there is a really strong dissatisfaction with the quality of students' education, particularly at big schools like UBC and the University of Toronto," Friedrich said.
In the 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement, UBC scored "slightly below the average on most of the benchmarks" compared to Canadian peer universities, the university states on its Web site (www.ubc.ca/). "One exception is on the benchmark for 'Supportive Campus Environment' where UBC Vancouver Campus is below average, and the difference could be described as 'small to moderate'. Large Canadian research universities in general show levels of student engagement substantially lower than their American counterparts. The lower scores relative to U.S. peers are most pronounced on the benchmark for Student-Faculty Interactions, where the difference could be described as moderate to large."
Friedrich praised Plant's emphasis on better data collection, which was also highlighted in the UBC AMS submission. However, Friedrich claimed that Plant "sort of skirted the issue of taking a serious look at tuition, perhaps because this topic is 'politically sensitive'.
"We find a lot of problems with parental-income stipulations around student loans because there is a large pool of students out there who are mature–say, 23 and older, or are maybe estranged from their parents–who don't have the same ability to rely on parent incomes," he said. "So maybe they're disqualified from the system but they need loan support. There is a recommendation in there that no qualified students should be barred for financial reasons, but if you're talking about parental-income stipulations, you can actually miss a large pool of students who need financial assistance."
On April 18 in the legislature, NDP advanced-education critic Rob Fleming highlighted the rising cost of education under the B.C. Liberals. He noted that British Columbians pay, on average, 14 percent more than the Canadian average for tuition, and that the average student debt is $27,000 from a four-year program, which puts B.C. at the second-highest level in the country.
Fleming revealed that the number of recipients of B.C. student loans fell from 66,465 in 2003–04 to 57,648 in 2005–06. Meanwhile, he said, the average student debt load has increased by $10,000 during the B.C. Liberals' reign, a time when the government eliminated student grants in the first four years of postsecondary schooling.
B.C. advanced education minister Murray Coell defended his government's policies, claiming that a bachelor's degree can add $500,000 to a person's income during a lifetime.