Budgets are about choices
Budgets are about choices and the 2015 BC budget is no exception in that department. The frustration for post-secondary educators, their students and their institutions is that the choices made in this year’s budget fall well short of the priorities needed to improve conditions across the BC post-secondary education system.
While the budget documents are required by law to include three-year forecasts for every Ministry and public entity, the most critical information is the funding projections for the next twelve months, and on that score the Ministry of Advanced Education is forecasting declines in two important numbers. The operating grants to post-secondary institutions are projected to decline from $1.846 billion currently to $1.832 billion for fiscal year 2015-16. Just as worrisome, the Ministry is projecting a decline in the number of students enrolled at post-secondary institutions. The estimate of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) enrolments will drop from 204,250 currently to 201,256 in fiscal year 2015-16.
Both declines are at odds with the government’s three-year old Jobs Plan which stressed the importance of post-secondary education in preparing and linking students to the one million job openings that the province believes will emerge over the next decade. And despite our concerns about the pedagogical underpinnings of the provincial government’s approach to linking today’s students to those emerging opportunities, the one thing that you would expect to see in a provincial budget is a strong and growing commitment to positioning post-secondary institutions to meet those opportunities. The fact that the 2015 budget anticipates a decline in the core funding provided to our institutions is both troublesome and, at the very least, inconsistent with the government’s macro-goals of improving economic and employment growth.
But back to the issue of choices for a moment: the 2015 budget could have invested in post-secondary education, but opted to spend money on other priorities. The most glaring example of a priority that seems misplaced is the decision by the Minister of Finance to end the high income surtax in the 2015-16 fiscal year. The tax was introduced in 2013 and, at the time, the Minister argued that having high income earners “pay their fair share” was a sound and sensible fiscal strategy. I agree. A progressive tax system not only ensures fairness, it also provides a strong base from which to finance critical public services.
The elimination of the surtax will cost the provincial treasury $227 million. The question for many within the post-secondary education system is why not invest that money in improving access and affordability? Examples of how that money could be put to good use are many. ESL programs could be fully funded with less than 10 percent of that surtax total. Real per-student operating grants to post-secondary institutions could be strengthened to a level not seen since 2001. An ambitious expansion of trades training seats across our public institutions could be financed by a fraction of the surtax total. Adult Basic Education, student financial aid, even funding the freezing of tuition fees could all be accomplished if the surtax money was invested directly in post-secondary education.
Given that the Minister of Finance still has time to reconsider his decision to eliminate the high income surtax, the next twelve months provide an opportunity to engage the government on this point. The budget shows we have the capacity to make smarter choices in critical services like post-secondary education. Over the next year we need to convince the provincial government to show the necessary leadership and make choices that work for everyone.
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.