Cindy Oliver: B.C. budget opts not to invest in postsecondary education

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      Budgets are about choices and the 2015 B.C. budget is no exception in that department. The frustration for postsecondary educators, their students, and their institutions is that the choices made in this year’s budget fall well short of the priorities needed to improve conditions across the B.C. postsecondary education system.

      While the budget documents are required by law to include three-year forecasts for every ministry and public entity, the most critical information is the funding projections for the next 12 months, and on that score the Ministry of Advanced Education is forecasting declines in two important numbers. The operating grants to postsecondary institutions are projected to decline from $1.846 billion currently to $1.832 billion for fiscal year 2015-16. Just as worrisome, the ministry is projecting a decline in the number of students enrolled at postsecondary institutions. The estimate of full-time equivalent (FTE) enrolments will drop from 204,250 currently to 201,256 in fiscal year 2015-16.

      Both declines are at odds with the government’s three-year old Jobs Plan, which stressed the importance of postsecondary education in preparing and linking students to the one million job openings that the province believes will emerge over the next decade. And despite our concerns about the pedagogical underpinnings of the provincial government’s approach to linking today’s students to those emerging opportunities, the one thing that you would expect to see in a provincial budget is a strong and growing commitment to positioning postsecondary institutions to meet those opportunities. The fact that the 2015 budget anticipates a decline in the core funding provided to our institutions is both troublesome and, at the very least, inconsistent with the government’s macro-goals of improving economic and employment growth.

      But back to the issue of choices for a moment: the 2015 budget could have invested in postsecondary education, but opted to spend money on other priorities. The most glaring example of a priority that seems misplaced is the decision by the minister of finance to end the high income surtax in the 2015-16 fiscal year. The tax was introduced in 2013 and, at the time, the minister argued that having high income earners “pay their fair share” was a sound and sensible fiscal strategy. I agree. A progressive tax system not only ensures fairness, it also provides a strong base from which to finance critical public services.

      The elimination of the surtax will cost the provincial treasury $227 million. The question for many within the postsecondary education system is why not invest that money in improving access and affordability? Examples of how that money could be put to good use are many. ESL programs could be fully funded with less than 10 percent of that surtax total. Real per-student operating grants to postsecondary institutions could be strengthened to a level not seen since 2001. An ambitious expansion of trades training seats across our public institutions could be financed by a fraction of the surtax total. Adult basic education, student financial aid, even funding the freezing of tuition fees could all be accomplished if the surtax money was invested directly in postsecondary education.

      Given that the minister of finance still has time to reconsider his decision to eliminate the high income surtax, the next 12 months provide an opportunity to engage the government on this point. The budget shows we have the capacity to make smarter choices in critical services like postsecondary education. Over the next year we need to convince the provincial government to show the necessary leadership and make choices that work for everyone.



      Gunga Din

      Feb 19, 2015 at 5:40pm

      Used to believe decades ago that education was an investment for a better tomorrow in our society. Turns out, for the most part, it's just a mechanism that grinds out smarter people better equipped to screw others for self-benefit and accelerate the relentlessly increasing income gap.


      Feb 20, 2015 at 6:16am

      @Gunga Din,

      Actually education in too many cases is about producing conformity. For students really to get smarter they would have to be readers. If you wander around the VPL no one reads anymore. They just play video-games on library computers. This produces consumers but not thinkers.

      Why send good money after bad?

      Feb 20, 2015 at 11:05am

      Our post-secondary institutions have nobody but themselves to blame for any budgetary issues they face. Overpaid professors, over-staffed bureaucracy and ridiculous packages for the ever growing range of "executives" absurd a greater percentage of the budget every year. The "market" for university professors and administrators is more artificial than most yet drives up salaries to obscene levels. How does an arts prof merit a salary greater than $120,000? Is there that mich competition?

      The other problem is grade inflation that began at the public school level and has produced dunderheads who graduated high school with straight happy faces. Remedial math and English grow at a steady rate and graduates keep getting churned out but the standards are achingly low in most fields. The overpaid professors teach fewer classes than their underpaid TAs and such, but that is how you attract "star" professors: lots of free time & a high salary and suddenly you have an all-star cast teaching one course a semester if you are lucky.

      I was fortunate in that my post-secondary education took place mostly outside Canada. I spent a year at UBC and thanked dog I hadn't gone there for my undergrad before going away to complete my graduate studies. Churning out vacuous grads in the arts & business isn't a good thing. Graduating more mediocre teachers & lawyers isn't a good thing. Raising expectations, standards and entrance requirements would be a good start. Only when excellence is the entry standard can one minimize or eliminate tuition fees as the number of students decreases.