Green MLA Andrew Weaver raises concerns about B.C. Liberal government interference in universities
Andrew Weaver gets impatient whenever governments try to meddle with the postsecondary education system to achieve market objectives.
"A diversified economy needs a diversified workforce," Weaver tells the Georgia Straight by phone from Victoria. "It needs an investment in postsecondary education that's not targeted in a particular area—that recognizes a diversity of interests."
The legislature's only Green MLA says he's becoming increasingly concerned about governments trying to pick winners and losers in the postsecondary sector.
As an example, he pointed out that there was a push to educate more computer scientists right at the peak of the Internet bubble. Then there were attempts to train more people in business and economics before the global meltdown of 2008.
More recently, the B.C. Liberal government announced that it would align postsecondary institutions' operating grants "to support training for in-demand jobs".
"Funding for programs that support high-demand occupations will increase to 25% of annual operating grants provided to public post-secondary institutions, up to $460 million annually by 2017-18," the ministry stated in a news release.
Push for LNG based on campaign hyperbole
Under the B.C. Liberal government, there's a growing focus on transforming postsecondary education to capitalize on the yet-to-be-created liquefied-natural-gas sector.
The Ministry of Advanced Education service plan maintains that "expanded liquefied natural gas development in Northern B.C." will create job openings.
Weaver calls the B.C. Liberals' hype around LNG as "a message of hope wrapped in hyperbole in a campaign that they did not think they were going to win".
"They won and now they're trying to deliver the impossible," he scoffs.
Compounding the problem is the "corporatization of universities", according to the Green MLA.
"Universities are seeing themselves as institutions like corporations," Weaver says. "So the management structure is becoming rather top-heavy. The guidance from 'shareholders', which would be governments, is being a little more in your face in terms of giving direction. Research funding is being way more targeted."
Universities enhance democracy, Weaver says
Weaver spent much of his life in academia, working 20 years as a professor at the University of Victoria specializing in climate science before being elected to the legislature as the province's first Green MLA in 2013.
He says that while he supports education in the trades, there are other functions of postsecondary institutions that must not be neglected.
"The purpose of a university is not just to train a bunch of people who can screw screws into the wall," he maintains. "The purpose of a university is to train people who can critically assess information to allow them to participate in an informed manner in a democracy."
That's why it's important, in his opinion, for people to obtain history degrees—so they can help society ensure that it doesn't repeat errors of the past.
Weaver also has little patience for those who criticize poetry education, saying that the reasoning and analysis that goes behind it have other applications.
"If poetry in a university were so unimportant, then nobody would take it," Weaver declares. "But you know what? There's a demand for it. There's market demand and supply. There's a supply because there's demand. Universities shut programs down when there's no demand."
For politicians who profess to believe in the marketplace, Weaver has this advice: "Universities are no different. Students go into a university and they take programs and courses where they believe it will allow them to grow and move on and contribute to society."
Weaver likes new minister, dislikes funding cuts
Weaver says that he has tremendous respect for Andrew Wilkinson, the new minister of advanced education, calling him a "first-rate appointment". The Green MLA is pleased that the man overseeing the postsecondary system has a great deal of experience within it.
"This is a Rhodes scholar who is both a medical doctor and a lawyer," Weaver notes.
At the same time, Weaver expresses concern that funding for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education has been shrinking over the years as a percentage of the gross domestic product.
The recent B.C. budget brought forth a decline in provincial funding for postsecondary education in the coming year—from $1.85 billion spent last year to $1.83 billion allocated this year.
"Choices are made for short-term gain without thinking about the long-term consequences," Weaver says. "Education in B.C. is underfunded without any question."
He says that governments find it more expedient and receive more votes over an election cycle by reducing waiting times for seniors needing joint replacements than by investing similar amounts of money in training the next generation.
The irony, Weaver points out, is that the next generation is going to take care of people like him when he gets older.
"We need to think about getting our youth engaged because ultimately, they're the ones who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions being made," he says. "But we've put in measures to limit the engagement. We have elections in May in B.C. when university students go all over the place. We don't register them as voters until after they leave high school. There is a lot of things we can do."
Feb 24, 2015 at 12:22pm
I have great respect for Weaver, but he did kind of answer his own question with the comment about seniors and hip replacements. I thought there was an overall decline in school age population, with an increase in elderly people, who require more health care than when they were younger? The change in funding levels appear to follow those trends, with more emphasis on health care and a decrease in educational funding.