Finance committee report shows some progress, but there’s still a lot missing in the recommendations

For the last three months, BC's Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services has been gathering input from across the province in advance of the February 2009 provincial budget. The pre-budget consultation provides an important opportunity for activists, citizens and advocacy groups to make a case for what should be the priorities in the next budget.

For our Federation, the pre-budget public hearings provide another venue for getting our message to government and MLAs that chronic under-funding of the public post-secondary system is hurting both students and the broader needs of the BC economy. It's a message that FPSE, along with other allies in the post-secondary sector, have pushed consistently over the last seven years.

The BC Liberal majority on the Standing Committee makes it difficult to have progressive issues recognized as key priorities in their final report. Despite that problem, we have managed, in previous years, to make incremental progress on a few issues. For example, our push to have Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs become tuition-free started with a coordinated effort to have the Standing Committee Report recommend that as a budget priority. That happened over three years ago and was finally implemented by the Minister of Advanced Education in January 2007.

The ABE example shows that careful and persistent advocacy on progressive solutions can translate into small victories. It just takes time.

This year's Standing Committee Report provides additional evidence that our calls for change are not completely ignored. As we have done in previous presentations to the Finance Committee, FPSE has made the case that chronic under-funding is creating both hardship and lost opportunities. The Report's recommendations fall well short of endorsing our call for increased investment in post-secondary institutions, but there are signs that post-secondary education is beginning to emerge as a potential election issue.

The report calls on the government to "ensure the financial viability of the province's colleges and universities". If nothing else, the carefully chosen words are an acknowledgement that the 2.6% cut in post-secondary funding this year caused serious financial problems for institutions and serious political repercussions for the government, repercussions that continue to haunt government-side MLAs as they head into the last six months of this mandate.

The Report also calls on the government to address the affordability crunch that post-secondary students face. The specific recommendations are fairly modest-reduce student loan interest rates and re-draft student loan contracts-but they indicate that the government is feeling the criticism that their de-regulated approach to tuition fees has been harmful to students.

The Report also suggests that the government find new ways to allow those on income assistance to access post-secondary programs. Again, the recommendation reflects a growing realization that the harsh cuts made by the BC Liberals in 2002 to those on income assistance were misguided and punitive.

Missing in the committee's recommendations were more specific measures to strengthen funding and reverse the decline in real per student operating grants. Those funding numbers have been in steady decline since the BC Liberals took office in 2001.

The next step in the legislative process will be the tabling of the February 2009 budget. The question for thousands of British Columbians will be "Is the government listening?" Stay tuned.

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.