Campus 2020 and the phony debate

When Geoff Plant was first appointed to conduct the Campus 2020 review of BC's post-secondary education system, caution flags were raised. Many wondered how the former BC Liberal Cabinet Minister could bring objectivity to such an important review. After all, this was the same Geoff Plant who sat at the provincial cabinet table when massive and profoundly regressive changes to BC's post-secondary education system were both conceived and approved.

After almost a year of review, Plant's final report was released. Not surprisingly, many of his recommendations simply reinforced the policies that were adopted by his BC Liberal cabinet colleagues during their first term in office.

With more balanced recommendations, Plant's report could have formed the basis for a new consensus about what the future of post-secondary education in BC should look like. Public opinion certainly suggests that voters want to see meaningful reforms that include better access, more options for students looking to either start or complete their post-secondary education and, most of all, greater investment by government in our public post-secondary institutions.

Unfortunately, Plant's report has not delivered that consensus. In fact, his report is now beginning to create divisions within the public post-secondary education system, divisions that could easily pit institutions against one another in the fight for limited provincial dollars for post-secondary education.

Nowhere is that division more apparent than in the current debate over university status. For example, Plant's report calls for changes that tip the balance in favour of BC's big three universities. He calls for a "Georgia Strait research cluster" comprised of UBC, SFU and UVic where he recommends targeting "at least" 95% of provincial research funding.

The recommendation has been interpreted by some as a commanding vote of confidence in the big three universities and an indication that provincial post-secondary education policy should give special preference to those three universities. However, the sad fact is that Plant's report does not call for any substantial boost in provincial research funding. In effect, his recommendations will support research by having public institutions squabble over a more limited slice of provincial research funding.

Plant's university-centric views have also created tensions within the college, university-college and institutes system where years of chronic under-funding have translated into less support for students and fewer course offerings. As well, the funding crunch has pushed some institutions into questionable partnership arrangements with private entities, arrangements that have serious fiscal and reputational consequences for the institution.

Just as troubling, Plant's report has emboldened some within the "Georgia Strait" group to contend that university status is an exclusive "brand" that warrants special protection. In a scene that is reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm when the commandments are amended to say, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others," Mr. Plant's supporters question the value and ability of colleges and university-colleges to meet the requirements of university status.

In their enthusiasm to support Mr. Plant's prescription for change, these proponents completely ignore the obvious problems that have been created by the provincial government over the last six years. Deregulated tuition fees have either ‘priced out' thousands of students from post-secondary education or forced those who remain into deeper debt. The government's preference for so-called self-regulation of private institutions has led to controversy, scandal and unsavory practices within some of those institutions, an outcome that taints the reputation of every post-secondary institution, whether it's public or private. But most of all, the steady decline in real per-student operating grants from the provincial government has undermined the ability of public post-secondary institutions to deliver the accessible and affordable education that post-secondary students both need and deserve.

Creating division within the ranks of our public post-secondary system is a convenient escape hatch for bad public policy. Mr. Plant's report has serious flaws in both its analysis and recommendations. The way forward needs to target those flaws, not devolve into a phony debate about who should win and who should lose.

In our 2007 round of provincial bargaining FPSE succeeded in getting a policy table that will bring together senior administrators, our locals and the Ministry of Advanced Education to address the serious issues facing our post-secondary education system. Whether it's access to University Transfer programs or the strained relationship between our institutions and the Industry Training Authority, our policy table provides the opportunity for real input by faculty on the future of our post-secondary education system.

That's how our organization is going to advocate for change, using our collective resolve for collective gains that improve the opportunities and outcomes for all our institutions and our students.

 

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.