B.C. student groups, universities, and unions present postsecondary wish lists to legislature committee

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      Various student groups have given an earful to a group of MLAs who will be making recommendations on next year's provincial budget.

      B.C. Federation of Students chairperson Tanysha Klassen was one of the speakers to the legislature committee on finance and government services on June 19. Her organization represents 170,000 students.

      "Due to COVID-19, people are unable to afford to pay their rent, let alone attend postsecondary," Klassen said in her presentation. "Families have been dipping into their savings, dealing with loss of employment and unstable investment markets.

      "Although domestic students are protected by a two percent tuition fee cap each year, they're still being gouged by ancillary fees in order to help institutions bulk up their budgets and stay afloat."

      Klassen also pointed out that international enrollment may decline by up to 30 percent this fall due to the pandemic. And that will result in a "drastic decline in tuition fees coming to institutional budgets".

      "Textbook publishers are still targeting professors with shiny new editions of course material and are paying no mind to the cost for students," the BCFS chairperson said. "But without funding for more high-quality open-source options, what are professors to do?

      "Institutions don't have the money to continually support the creation of free, open resources, but with funding from this government, they can work together with organizations like BCcampus to make these essential materials available to students, whether they're in the classroom or on line."

      Another group representing 80,000 B.C. postsecondary students also wants the B.C. government to boost funding for open-education options.

      "In light of COVID-19, it's no secret that students are in more precarious financial situations," Alliance of B.C. chair Grace Dupasquier told the committee. "For many, textbook and course work costs can mean the difference between their ability to afford to continue post-secondary this year or not."

      She emphasized that investing in open educational resources would the burden on students and instructors.

      "Instructors frequently cite the lack of supplementary course fare as a primary reason for not switching to OERs in their classrooms," she said. "With additional funding towards OER implementation, those concerns can be meaningfully addressed, and the overall cost of post-secondary for students can be lowered."

      The Alliance of B.C. Students thinks the provincial government should be doing more to welcome international students to the province.
      Alliance of B.C. Students

      The committee accepted submissions until June 26. In August, it will release a report as part of the consultation process for the 2021 provincial budget.

      The Alliance of B.C. Students also told the committee that there's no longer a guarantee that international students will come to the province in the same numbers. Already this year, there's been a sharp reduction in student visas granted by the federal government. And that could undermine revenue for institutions, which charge higher fees for international students.

      "B.C. must adapt itself to be the most attractive option for international education," Dupasquier said. "We recommend a proactive, strong show of good faith towards international students—policies post-secondary recruiters can proudly tout as giving B.C. the leading edge over other destinations.

      "Capping the amount that international tuition can be raised year over year to two percent, the same cap that already exists for domestic students, would be a huge step in the right direction."

      In addition, she called for reducing or eliminating payments that international students must make to the Medical Services Plan.

      "Contrary to the popular belief that international students are typically wealthy, recent surveys of student populations in B.C. show that international students actually experience much greater rates of key indicators of financial distress, like food insecurity," Dupasquier declared. "While MSP premiums might seem like a drop in the bucket compared to other financial stressors they may be facing, many international students already have monthly budgets that are so tight that even a small reduction in their cost of living would help out immensely."

      Alireza Kamyabi, vice president of external relations for UBC's Graduate Student Society, urged the committee to recommend that the B.C. graduate scholarship fund be funded on a permanent basis and be expanded to students outside of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

      "We need to ensure that we retain the talent pool of graduate students in B.C. to contribute to solving present and future challenges and fill the jobs of the future tech economy," Kamyabi said. "That's why our second recommendation is that the province increase investments in the research and innovation sector in order to retain highly skilled graduate students in B.C., maintain job prospects and develop our future economy."

      A representative of Thompson Rivers University Students Union, Kole Lawrence, asked the committee to expand the new B.C. access grant in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

      "In a Statistics Canada survey of students this spring, 51 percent of students indicated that they were very or extremely concerned about paying for next term's tuition," Lawrence said. "This speaks to the cost concerns that returning students, as well as new students, are facing.

      "The federal Canada student grants program is already being doubled for one year, starting this fall, but as the increase in federal grants money returns to normal levels, there will be students who are still struggling due to ongoing COVID impacts."

      On top of that, Lawrence said that there needs to be a provincial jobs program for postsecondary students and a provincial strategy for international students.

      "To give context, B.C. currently hosts over 150,000 international students, representing approximately 25 percent of international students across the country," Lawrence stated. "The economic impact of an international education in B.C. in 2016 was over $4.2 billion, helping to support vital services for residents across the province."

      SFU Student Society's vice president of external relations, Samad Raza, told the committee that the B.C. government needs to revise the postsecondary funding model and increase operating grants to institutions.

      "Postsecondary institutions are increasingly relying on students' tuition, particularly from international students, to fund post-secondary institution operating costs," Raza said. "In fact, tuition outpaced provincial operating grant funding in 2015 as the largest revenue source for SFU."

      He noted that international student enrollment benefits domestic students.

      "For example, at North Island College on Vancouver Island, revenue from international students allowed them to enrol an additional nearly 700 domestic students in 2017," Raza said. "However, both the province and postsecondary institutions are currently economically vulnerable, as institutions will lose a major portion of their operating revenue if international student enrollment drops, and the government would lose a large contribution to the economy.

      "For example, when international student enrolment dropped in 2009 due to the global financial crisis, SFU ran an operating deficit. Postsecondary institutions are facing a similar crisis today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic."

      Others who spoke included Vancouver Island University Student Union rep Sean Desrochers, College of New Caledonia Students Union chair Sharanjit Kaur, and Vancouver Community College Students Union organizer Phoebe Lo Patigdas.

      Universities raise mental-health concerns

      The president of the Research Universities Council of British Columbia, Max Blouw, spoke about the importance of the health, well-being, and success of students. 

      "COVID-19 is a defining moment for their generation," Blouw said, "and the decisions we will make will determine how that moment will be defined by them as they look back several years from now, when COVID is behind us."

      He brought "four urgent recommendations" to the committee:

      * an increase in targeted needs-based emergency financial assistance for students with limited financial resources;

      * increased provincial funding to "expand the health needs-based financial assistance to be distributed by institutions to students in need", including mental-health supports;

      * additional resources to help students succeed in an online learning environment;

      * and increasing the graduate student scholarship fund and ensuring that this funding is ongoing.

      BCIT associate dean Kevin Wainwright hopes the provincial government embraces experiential learning, particularly for adults whose livelihoods have been rocked by COVID-19.
      BCIT Business + Media

      BCIT associate dean Kevin Wainwright spoke on June 2, focusing his remarks on B.C.'s Prior Learning Action Network.

      "PLAR is a crucial part of assisting in the transition of the workforce, especially the more mature workforce," he said. "We've had great success in the past in special areas like first responders and the military.

      "Over 1,500 military personnel have gone through PLAR and managed to move on to postsecondary and get degrees in very short order," Wainwright continued. "Now we need to look at the general population, especially in the northern areas, remote areas. We're already starting to get calls from municipalities and other groups in Pemberton, the Squamish area, asking how we transition people due to the loss of, the massive hit to, tourism."

      He asked the committee to recommend more research into prior-learning opportunities. In addition, Wainwright pointed to the need to enhance the efficiency of the PLAR system, which involves postsecondary institutions and industry groups.

      "Third is that we need to focus on the impact in the more distant areas that have been hit hardest," he added. "Any small community that has been transitioning from a primary industry to tourism in the last 20 years is now seeing massive unemployment because of the COVID crisis."

      Unions raise funding issues

      On June 2, CUPE B.C. president Paul Faoro said that before the pandemic, "the proportion of provincial funding dropped by 24 percent between 2000 and 2016".

      "Now, approximately only 43 percent of B.C. college and university budgets comes from public funding," Faoro said. "We recommend that the postsecondary funding model be reviewed with the goal of increasing per-student funding, reducing the reliance on international students, and restoring the majority of public funding.

      "We also recommend that the provincial government provide a targeted increase in funding to colleges and universities to increase domestic enrollment through increased capacity, specifically in key areas for economic recovery, development and innovation such as red seal–certified trades, child care educators, education assistants and other professional programs."

      The number of federal student visas for international students has declined this year as a result of COVID-19. 

      In its submission, the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C. told the committee that it's important that the system "not be degraded by any reduction in international student revenue".

      "FPSE supports calling on the federal government to provide this funding through increased social transfers to B.C. as part of Canada’s economic recovery plan," it stated.

      The union proposed that the government allow colleges, institutes, and universities to run deficits and "to access surplus accounts to ensure continued funding of services, courses, and therefore faculty and staff employment".

      CUPE B.C. president Paul Faoro is one of many speakers who urged a legislature committee to recommend higher funding for postsecondary institutions.

      FPSE vice president Frank Cosco let the committee know that everything about the classroom experience has changed due to COVID-19, due to extra efforts by faculty members.

      "But here's where the story's progress gets uncertain," he said. "Will the future bring austerity, a new segment of the workforce unemployed and having to seek benefits and the great body of students or potential students cut off from the option of upgrading their skills or continuing their education?

      "We're here to ask that that not be the story, that, instead, we be enabled to continue with our work and our students with their work, and, indeed, that we be enabled to welcome in more students and potential students cut off from the option of upgrading their skills or continuing their education. We're here to ask that that not be the story."

      The president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., Jaccqueline Holler, told the committee that the province's resiliency, in part, is linked to the education provided at universities.

      "We have three broad priorities for the 2021 budget," she said. "First, we say it's a perfect time to reinvest. B.C. lags behind other provinces in per-student spending. This produces an overreliance on precariously employed per course sessionals, a group that disproportionately includes women and members of other equity-seeking groups and that is highly vulnerable in times of economic uncertainty such as the one we're in."

      Secondly, she called for "special COVID funding" to enhance scholarships and bursaries for students, provide targeted student employment on campuses, and fully fund the government's promised $50-million graduate scholarship program.

      "Finally, we ask the government to support research in a time of crisis," Holler said. "Grad student and faculty researchers are grappling with a massive interruption in programs and grants. Most institutions don't have the funding to address these shortfalls, which are going to hit research programs hard this fall and again affect those grad students, many of whom are supported by faculty grants."

      She pointed out that B.C.'s research universities are facing revenue shortfalls from student housing, conferences, events, activities and other revenue streams.

      "At the same time, costs are increasing as universities invest in novel and costly online platforms to ensure that students can continue to enjoy the highest quality education," Holler added. "Because universities are prohibited from carrying deficits, as already has been noted, these revenue shortfalls will require make-or-break decisions over faculty complement, program offerings and operational capacity. We therefore propose emergency transfers and loans to aid the recovery of the institutions' highest-quality education."

      Other faculty representatives who spoke included Chris Ayles of the Camosun College Faculty Association, Shantel Ivits from the VCC Faculty Association, Chris Jaeger of the Vancouver Island University Faculty Association, Brent Calvert of the Capilano University Faculty Association, and Lu Marinelli of the Selkirk College Faculty Association.