It’s an election year, and that means a budget full of goodies to woo the voters to cast their May 9 ballots for this government in the hopes of being elected for a fifth term.
But is there enough in BC Budget 2017 to make us forget everything that’s been taken away from us over the past 15 years?
As the people who work and teach in BC’s colleges, teaching universities, and institutes, our members know all too well how hard hit the public post-secondary system has been under this government. Operating grants have declined by 20% when you account for inflation; programs have been reduced, rationalized, or eliminated; wages haven’t kept up with inflation; and precarious work is on the rise. Adult basic education, adult special education, and English language learning programs have become far less accessible with the elimination of the tuition-free policy and the implementation of a regressive voucher-style upgrading grant. Trades training programs – which appear to be the only areas in public post-secondary education still getting new infusions of government funding – are benefitting from new buildings, but still lack any commitment to creating more apprenticeship opportunities for the students in these programs.
While institutions are being squeezed to cut costs and balance budgets, government revenue from tuition and other fees has ballooned, in spite of the 2% tuition cap. In 2001, tuition revenue was $452 million; this year it’s forecast to reach $1.8 billion. The average student debt in BC after completing a 4-year degree program is $35,000. To add insult to injury, the government has been charging the highest interest rate on student loans in Canada.
Every year, FPSE members and student union activists from all over the province participate in the pre-budget consultation hearings held by the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services. Every year, we make a number of recommendations to address this growing list of funding challenges faced by our members and our students. Every year, that bipartisan committee concurs with us and includes our recommendations in their report. And every year, the government tables a budget that fails to address any of those recommendations.
This year wasn’t much different. The 1% increase to operating grants doesn’t even cover inflation and is totally inadequate to meet the growing cost pressures faced by our institutions. There was nothing for ABE, ASE, or ELL programs. There was nothing for trades and apprenticeship programs. There were no improvements to student grants.
What was different this year was an announcement that the interest charged on student loans would be reduced, from prime + 2.5% to just prime. This counts as a victory for FPSE and BC Federation of Students’ campaign efforts to raise awareness of the growing student debt crisis. But it doesn’t come close to addressing the desperate need for debt relief for most BC students.
The budget documents show that the interest rate reduction will cost the government $11.3 million this year. When you look at the forecasted increase in tuition revenue – an increase of $85 million in the coming year – that $11.3 million is a drop in the bucket. The government will still be raking in an additional $74 million compared to last year.
Additionally, while it’s estimated that 205,000 people will benefit from the reduced interest rate, that works out to a meagre savings of just $55.12 per student debtor for the year.
Advanced education is just one small part of the province’s $50 billion budget. There’s plenty more in there: more pre-election spending, more of the money they took from your pockets being tucked back in. There’s also plenty that isn’t in there, like a poverty reduction plan, an increase to income assistance rates or the minimum wage, and an affordable child care plan, just to name a few.
So is there enough in BC Budget 2017 to make us forget what’s been taken away over the past 15 years? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
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.