Funding problems overshadowed by deficit woes

Part One

To hear Finance Minister Colin Hansen describe BC's current fiscal situation you would think that he just discovered the word recession in his briefing notes. Somehow, despite almost a year of economic decline in every developed economy on the planet, Mr. Hansen had maintained that things in BC were different. Certainly our provincial economy was feeling the impacts of global economic problems, but in his February budget and throughout the May provincial election, his optimism that BC would do better than most seemed unassailable.

Once the election was over, things changed. Suddenly "new information" was being uncovered that told our Finance Minister a much different story. Welfare caseloads were skyrocketing. Resource royalties were in the tank. Income tax revenues were trending down "at an alarming rate". Somehow this information only materialized after May 12th.

The Minister's credibility on fiscal issues is badly damaged, a troubling development given that he will be tabling a revised provincial budget on September 1st. Even more troubling, however, is the assertion by Mr. Hansen and Premier Campbell that despite our current economic woes, their fiscal plans-both the last budget and the revised one-will protect important public services like health care and education.

The most basic facts for post-secondary education simply don't support that assertion. For most of the BC Liberals' two terms in office, funding for post-secondary education has moved in the wrong direction. Just look at what happened in the last fiscal year to see how the problem has taken root. It starts with the Ministry of Advanced Education drastically underestimating the demand for post-secondary education. Over the last two fiscal years, for example, they budgeted for a 1.6% increase in the number of students. However, actual enrolments over that same period increased by 2.8%-almost almost twice the rate that the Ministry used in its budget plan. What that means at an institutional level is that students have to wait longer to either enter or complete their preferred program.

Adding to the problem is that operating grants to public post-secondary institutions are constantly eroded by inflation. Even though operating grants increased by 2.7% over the last fiscal year, inflation during that same period was 2.1%. What suffers through all of this is access and affordability. With enrolments exceeding Ministry estimates, students lose program options. With inflation eroding three-quarters of the increase in operating grants, institutions look to increased tuition fees. It's a vicious circle that undermines access and affordability.

In the public debate, however, both Mr. Hansen and the Premier try to portray a different picture. First, they carefully ignore their track record of underfunding that has created problems in post-secondary education. Then they divert the public's focus by stressing their commitment to "protect education and health care". Conveniently lost in all of this is any substantial debate about how fiscal choices made over their last two terms-things like de-regulating tuition fees, excessive and unsustainable tax cuts for corporations and BC's wealthy-created the current crisis that has made access and affordability such a problem for our students.

In Part Two of this Comment, I will detail some public opinion research that gauges the public's priorities in dealing with BC's current fiscal problems. Hopefully, that information will begin to mobilize a broader debate in BC about how to not just change direction, but also improve conditions across all sectors of our economy. 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.