Our voices should be heard in the 2005 budget consultation

How would you spend $4.5 billion? While it may be harder this year to get in the door to answer the question, this is the 2005 budget question.

It's that time of year again when the BC Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services - a committee of the BC Legislature - traverses the province to hear British Columbians' views on the 2005 provincial budget. This year, as in past years, many FPSE locals have sought to participate, as we did at the provincial level. But there are two significant differences with this year's consultation. First, this year the committee wants to hear about our ideas for spending large budget surpluses, rather than managing status quo or decreasing revenues. Second, it seems that the consultation slots were pretty much filled within hours of the consultation being publicly announced on September 1 - leaving out many who have traditionally made presentations. A cynical view might be that government is seeking to manage its consultation a little more tightly this year than in the past.

This 2005 budget consultation may also be different because we are talking about an election budget. On May 17, 2005 British Columbians go to the polls and just a few short months before that, government will table its budget. No doubt in making their assessments many consultation participants will be looking at not simply the past year or the next three years, but also the track record of the current government's term in office. And this is a reasonable way to view budget needs and priorities at this point in government's mandate.

We know that the BC government has put in place a six year plan for growth in the post-secondary education system. Most of us have seen government's expensive advertising campaign about its plan. We are frankly concerned that the plan is too little, too late and does not address affordability for students and families.

The plan promises growth to 2010, and it is sorely needed growth. But when we comment on the upcoming budget, we will also be looking at government's track record. In post-secondary education, in the 2001 to 2006 period, we will have seen per student funding decline by about $250 (based on the current three year plan). For the colleges, university colleges and institutes to simply return to 2001 per student funding levels would require an additional $25 million annually.

The move to block funding, with minimal support for the special needs that each institution has, is not enough. Regional and remote institutions are experiencing enrolment declines, while urban institutions cannot meet the demand. Costs for students and families are clearly an issue and government must find a way to make our institutions more affordable. Government must also address the need to provide quality education and infrastructure and fair working conditions for faculty and staff. These are all elements of a reinvestment initiative in post-secondary education.

Premier Gordon Campbell has often talked of the positive link between education and healthcare. Increasing the investment in post-secondary education is among the best investments government can make. A better educated community is a healthier community, has less crime and poverty and as a result, and has reduced social costs. A better educated community is also healthy for our democracy as education increases a wide range of civic participation, including volunteering, voting and becoming involved in community activities.

While it may be harder to get in that door this year, I encourage post-secondary educators to have your say on budget 2005. Write to your Member of the Legislative Assembly. Send an email to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services. Get active in your local. We know what our students and our colleagues are experiencing on a day-to-day basis and our elected representatives need to hear from us.

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.