Cancelled regional hearings speak volumes about the Provincial government's real agenda on literacy

It was just nine months ago that BC's Lieutenant Governor, Iona Campagnola, opened the 38th Parliament with details of the government's strategic plan for the next four years. The plan described "five great goals" that would guide the government's fiscal and policy agenda until the next provincial election in 2009.

At the top of their list was a pledge to have BC become "the best educated and most literate jurisdiction on the continent." A laudable goal by any measure, but one that seems to be fraying at the edges even before the first year of their four year mandate is complete.

BC is facing a growing skills shortage, one that even threatens to undermine economic growth according to the province's Forecast Council. Thousands of potential post-secondary students see record high tuition fees, the wholesale cutting of student support and counseling services and the erosion of course offerings in their local post-secondary institution as just more barriers to their education and training. Declining enrolments, especially in many of BC's non-metropolitan colleges, institutes and universities, are an early-warning of more trouble to come for Premier Campbell's "great goal" for education.

To help minimize criticism of his post-secondary education policies, the Premier has asked the Legislature's Standing Committee on Education to consider how provincial policies might be improved, especially in the area of adult literacy and English-as-a- second-language programs. In theory, at least, the Legislative Committee was a sensible approach to take. It could offer objective analysis, hear from expert witnesses and provide the venue for public input from all regions of the province. Unfortunately, the theory has not worked that well.

At the outset, BC Liberal members of the Committee were unable to get the government to broaden the terms of reference, even though the consensus within the Committee was that narrow-casting their work would not provide meaningful recommendations to government. Simply put, many on the Committee wanted to conduct a more thorough review of both funding and policy decisions, but the Premier's Office wasn't much interested in that kind of scrutiny.

Then came another setback. The Committee was scheduled to hold public hearings in three non-metropolitan communities; Castlegar, Prince George and Prince Rupert. However, those hearings were later cancelled. The Committee Chair, BC Liberal MLA John Nuraney, tried to justify the cancellation by saying not enough people had registered for these public meetings. However, many education advocates in the communities pointed out that very little advance notice was provided and local organizing for the events was virtually non-existent.

The irony in these cancellations is that one of the first witnesses to appear before the Committee in March, Dr. Ron Faris, provided detailed research showing that BC's greatest literacy problems were in non-metropolitan areas of the province. The very communities that should have been consulted about adult literacy were once again being ignored.

Meeting great goals takes great effort. Unfortunately, the provincial government seems more interested in just going through the motions, not pushing itself to make positive change a reality. That approach will have a corrosive impact on our future and an entire generation of young people whose opportunities for better education and training in our public post-secondary system are being undermined by chronic under-funding and ill-considered policy shifts.

BC has the fiscal resources to change all that. Current and forecast budget surpluses should be put to good use, not just left to idle in the provincial treasury. Investing in our post-secondary education system is a sensible first step in making the kind of changes that our province needs.

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.