INVESTING IN PUBLIC POST-SECONDARY: THE FOUNDATION FOR BC'S COVID-19 RECOVERY
A submission to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON THE POST-SECONDARY SECTOR
When COVID-19 threatened our society, we united in following public health directives out of deep concern and compassion for our fellow citizens. The public has proven that there is broad and deep support for actions, and spending, to take care of each other. We must maintain this commitment to public spending to support people through the crisis.
The only consensus that exists regarding the province’s economic future is that much is unknown, but given the national and international negative impact, it is expected there will be a recession or depression, and that the recovery will be led by the public sector. While hardly a positive economic outlook, it is helpful to recognize this reality as a starting point in building the budget to bring clarity to the goals of the provincial budget: will it accept additional hardship for those at the bottom, or will it actively seek to reduce inequality by directing public funding towards those measures proved to long-term societal, economic, and individual benefit?
Given that a downturn is expected, spending and services should be aligned to meet the anticipated needs of citizens. History shows that during an economic downturn, people will enter or return to some level of post-secondary education. This is why it will be so important to maintain the capacity of the post-secondary system. A cut by austerity or unchanged public spending is still a cut – with large reliance on private funds expected to evaporate, public spending will be needed to make up the shortfall.
ACCESS FOR STUDENTS
Past funding programs like Institutional Based Training and Capacity Expansion along with their low tuition levels serve as positive examples of increased funding directly correlating with increased access for students. The successes of these initiatives stem from principles that should be used to guide funding for post-secondary institutions in their COVID-19 response:
Continuity | At a minimum, the current program profiles of post-secondary offerings need to be maintained while also supporting new needs. Institutions that are not able to balance their 2020-21 budgets should, with proper planning, rationales, and approvals be allowed to proceed without cuts to balance their budgets. If cuts are deemed necessary, they should be made as far away from the key service area of post-secondary – education and direct education support – as possible.
Accessibility | Adequate faculty and staff levels need to be present across the province – geographic access to quality post-secondary training across the province is just as important now as it was when the college system was created. Emergency remote learning delivery during COVID-19 is justified, but it is by definition tied to our emergency circumstances. When face to face learning can safely resume, students will need access to institutions close to home with educators in their classrooms, and the ability to interact with their classmates. This will not be possible if rural institutions’ educator workforce is devastated by cuts motivated by fewer students.
Accountability | Accountability is best ensured through directed funding ‘envelopes’ with specific requirements, such as maintaining as many educators in the workforce as possible.
Affordability | Widespread loss of individual and family income adds financial barriers to those who most need access to education and skills training. Support BCFS calls for financial assistance for students.
Recommendations for BC Budget 2021
1) That the provincial government join FPSE and employers in establishing a formal tri-partite mechanism to ensure that continual consultation and inclusion are the hallmarks of BC’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis and continue post-crisis.
2) That public investment to public post-secondary institutions be increased to offset reduced revenue from international students and fund the post-secondary educational access BC needs. Current geographic accessibility and course offerings must be maintained or increased. It is important that BC’s post-secondary education system not be degraded by any reduction in international student tuition revenue. FPSE supports calling on the federal government to provide this funding through increased social transfers to BC as part of Canada’s economic recovery plan. Further options to maintain the post-secondary system:
- Allow institutions to run deficits
- Allow institutions to access surplus accounts to ensure continued funding of services, courses, and therefore faculty and staff employment.
- Pause, post-pone or cancel some capital projects so funds can be moved or kept within operational account
- Allow access to institutional surpluses to maintain educator workforce
- Wage and hiring freeze on administrators at all institution, and for those laying off faculty or staff that administrative cuts be at least proportionate (to the educator: administrator ratio).
- During COVID-19 pandemic, instruct institutions to demonstrate preferential consideration for educators laid off or not re-hired by institutions within the BC post-secondary system (using Article 2 of the Common Agreement pertaining to the laid off worker registry).
- Businesses and employers have a role in supporting a strong public post-secondary system as part of BC’s economic recovery. Businesses who need their employees to learn new skills should be encouraged to enter into Contract Training with a public post-secondary institution .
3) That the provincial government call on the federal government to:
- Endorse the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) call to allow public institutions to access the wage replacement subsidy;
- prioritize funding and support for private post-secondary institutions with unionized instructors, as this is the most efficient metric by which to measure fair and equitable treatment of instructors and students; AND
- establish a federal tri-partite committee to determine sector-wide practices regarding international education with compliance with collective agreements mandated at the outset.
The impacts of COVID-19 have been profound and felt across society – although those who were already vulnerable disproportionately suffered the negative economic and social consequences of the pandemic. The economic disruption has decreased government revenue at the same time as there has been increased demand for public services. It is in this context that the 2021 BC Budget is being prepared.
Rather than asking if an economic downturn is inevitable and trying to avoid it through cuts and austerity, FPSE is calling for bold, significant investment in the people of BC and the services they need to weather whatever lies ahead. We need to lay the foundation for a strong economic recovery that will last for generations.
Investment in post-secondary education must be part of this foundation, just as it must be part of the economic recovery. During an economic downturn, the need for post-secondary increases as people look for work or need to upgrade their training. When the education they need is affordable and accessible, the individual, the post-secondary system, and society all benefit from a population that grows healthier, more financially secure, and more democratically engaged, as it becomes more educated.
Investing in post-secondary education gives more people the opportunity to succeed. This is exactly the investment we need at this moment. This is how we can build an economic recovery for working people.
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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 19 public and 5 private sector institutions.