Government ads gloss over real problems in public education

AS EDUCATORS, WE LOOK FORWARD to September as a time for reconnecting with old friends and getting a jump on the new school year's course work. We expect a barrage of back-toschool ads on the radio, television and in the newspapers and we prepare for excitement and exhaustion of another school year.

This back-to-school season is the last one before the next provincial election and features a series of slick BC government ads designed to convince us that B.C.'s post secondary education system is in better shape than ever. I have a mixed reaction to the ads. Educators are very proud of the post-secondary system in BC that we helped to build, and it's hard not to be seduced by the clean-cut and affluent-looking college kids featured in the television spots as they tell us that B.C. is the "best place on earth to live and to learn."

But I also react with an overwhelming urge to check my atlas. The ads repeat government's promise to increase the number of post- secondary spaces by 2010 - "more options closer to home, saving BC's students and families thousands of dollars a year." Are we talking about the same province where, thanks to three years of underfunding and costshifting policies, B.C. students are facing skyrocketing tuition fees, and students and families are increasingly concerned about ever-higher debt loads? Is this the province where many institutions have cut back on programs and services, and others have a serious shortage of spaces in the courses students need?

Despite the "feel good" spin in the government ads, I can honestly say that based on my 20 years experience as a college instructor, the province's post-secondary system is less accessible to students than ever.

This year - most, if not all, of the very limited new money for student spaces will come from students and their families in the form of more student debt and higher tuition fees.

In the 2004 budget the BC government eliminated the BC Student Grant and "reallocated" that money which helped needy students reduce their debtload into funding for new student spaces.

Since the BC Liberal Government came to power, BC students and families have faced the most rapid tuition increases on record in Canada. Fees for BC students more than doubled in many programs within two years of removing the tuition fee freeze.

And while some institutions simply can't put on enough courses to meet demand, in 2004, ten of BC's 22 colleges, university colleges and institutes saw their enrolment decline. What concerns educators is that enrolment declined in institutions that rely more heavily on the government to fund their operations. In fact every BC post-secondary institution that relied on government for more than 60 per cent of its revenue saw its enrolment decline in 2004.

Post-secondary educators want to see the promise of more post-secondary spaces fulfilled. But unfortunately, advertising them does not necessarily mean funding them. We know that most of the new jobs being created require at least some post-secondary education. We know that communities throughout the province are facing serious economic transition and will need increased access to postsecondary programs and services. We also know that the amount of money the province has earmarked to spend on a perstudent basis over the next three years is targeted to decline even before inflation. Given the already precarious position of many post-secondary institutions and many students, government needs to change tracks and start to seriously address the need for adequate funding.

BC's system of quality public education is being eroded and opportunities to learn are being denied. The provincial government needs to take responsibility for helping all its citizens to get the post-secondary education they need.

Post-secondary educators are urging the government to increase education funding and make education affordable again for average families and for all communities. Only when these steps are taken will I be able to fully enjoy the nostalgic memories and the sense of optimism of this annual back-to-school season evoked in the BC government advertising campaign.

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.