B.C. has bobbled the post-secondary education and training ball

With BC’s economy shedding 69,000 jobs since October, the heat is on for the province’s post-secondary education system.
These newly jobless workers expect BC’s college and institutes can provide them with the skills and knowledge necessary to find new employment.
But this critical component of any economic recovery is in lamentable condition after years of provincial government restructuring, rebranding and underfinancing.
“So far our pattern of job loss is tracking Ontario, with a delay of six months to a year,” says Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators, the union representing the overwhelming majority of BC’s college instructors.
“As unemployment rose in Ontario, so did enrolment. It’s already up 10 percent. It’s hard to see how our BC system could absorb an increase of that magnitude given the funding pressures we face.”
By contrast, BC’s latest budget forecasts a very modest two percent growth in enrolment this year, despite the deepening job losses that were already evident when Finance Minister Colin Hanson tabled it.
Oliver points to last year’s 2.6 percent cut in operating grants to post-secondary institutions as the beginning of serious shortfalls in post-secondary capacity.
Despite feel-good rebranding of various colleges into instant “universities,” the 2009 provincial budget forecasts a virtual flatline for funding in future years. Oliver calculates that provincial funding per student, on an inflation-adjusted basis, had actually declined to $9,145 in 2008 from $10,184 in 2001 when the Liberals took office.
Yes, tuition revenue is expected to climb. Unbelievably, says Oiver, the province’s 2009 budget “projects that tuition revenues will surpass corporate tax revenues to the provincial treasury.”
But will unemployed workers likely to be able to finance year-over-year tuition costs when they’ve just lost their jobs? The Canadian Federation of Students says tuition costs are up 100 percent since 2001, BC tuition fees are well ahead of other provinces, and student debt higher than anywhere in Canada outside the Maritimes.
For unemployed workers who are using savings to pay the rent, a $500 tuition cost could be an insurmountable barrier to achieving the training needed to move to a new career. (The 2009 budget provided no increase in student financial assistance.)
Then there’s the apprenticeship system, only now coming up for air after years of government-driven restructuring, reorganization and partial privatization.
The 2002 decision to demolish the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission (ITAC) in favour of the Industry Training Authority, which was to turn over the direction and funding of training to Industry Training Organizations, recently received a failing grade from provincial Auditory General John Doyle.
Despite government claims to the contrary, Doyle found that apprenticeship numbers are just now recovering to the levels achieved under ITAC in 2002.
Costs, however, have ballooned as the government tried to jump start the welter of industry training organizations that tried to step into the void, each with its own CEO, administrative costs and jurisdictional claims.
Unlike previous provincial recessions, which saw the economy contract and then resume growth, this one looks like a different kind of beast. Will forestry ever resume its leading role? What kind of economy is built on industries like oil and gas, or private power, which spin money without spinning off many jobs?
If BC had used the boom to build an accessible, innovative and flexible education system, capable of constantly retraining a highly-skilled workforce, the answers would be easier to find. We did not.

Business in Vancouver, May 5-11, 2009