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BC Politics

Cuts at Capilano U: Is Worse to Come?

Cracks in BC's higher ed funding system go far and deep.

Crawford Kilian 1 May

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian taught at Capilano from its opening in 1968 to his retirement in 2008.

One by one, several department and program heads at Capilano University were called in last week for some bad news: They were going to lose courses, or programs, or even their whole departments.

Some would be cut; others would be "suspended," with current students able to finish their programs next year but no new students admitted. Still other courses would be moved into different programs.

The reason was a $1.3 million shortfall in the university's $89 million budget. Cap must balance its budget every year, and can't run a deficit. The provincial funding level is set, and tuition levels are frozen, so the university has no other revenue sources to make up the shortfall.

Budget problems aren't new to Cap, or any of B.C.'s post-secondary institutions. Traditionally, the response to a shortfall has been "horizontal" cuts: courses trimmed here and there, a new program cancelled before launch, less spending on janitorial services. "Vertical" cuts, the elimination of whole programs or departments, have been avoided as a kind of traumatic self-mutilation.

Competing with Emily Carr

Administrators who spoke with The Tyee said the current vertical cuts were not taken casually, or at random. For example, competition was a key reason for dropping Studio Art and Textile Art. Emily Carr, they pointed out, gets $9,200 in provincial funding for every full-time student; Cap gets $6,900. Given the attractions of Emily Carr's new campus, as well as the new SFU School for the Contemporary Arts, students would have less incentive to go to Cap.

Such competition has been a fact of B.C. post-secondary life for decades. The paper chase has turned into an arms race, and the whole system suffers from it.

B.C. post-secondary began to expand in 1965, with the launch of Simon Fraser University, BCIT, and the old Vancouver Community College (VCC) at 12th and Oak. This was the Socreds' delayed response to the 1945 Cameron report, which called for greater access to post-secondary. With the baby boomers now spilling out of overcrowded high schools, it was high time.

Other colleges soon appeared, including Capilano in 1968 and Douglas in 1970. The Dave Barrett NDP government of the 1970s extended the college system all over B.C., and the system generally worked well. Colleges trained some students for careers or trades and others for university. They acted as feeder schools for UBC, SFU and UVic.

Twilight of the golden age

That was in the twilight of the postwar golden age, when Grade 10 could get you into the RCMP and a one-income family could buy a home and send its kids to the new local college. But as the 1970s ended, and especially with the impact of soaring mortgage rates and a recession in the early 80s, B.C. post-secondary came under new pressures.

First, provincial funding got tighter; Victoria's share of college and institute funding began to shrink from over 80 per cent to the present 42 per cent. Second, more people started enrolling. They weren't just teenagers now; wives went back to school because they needed jobs to help pay the household bills, and husbands out of work came for retraining.

Equally significantly, more young women were going to post-secondary, and not just to train for traditional "women's jobs." They added to the demand for seats in all kinds of academic and career programs. The colleges and institutes were glad to take them.

Governments were less glad. Whether under the Socreds in the 1980s or NDP in the 1990s, ministry bureaucrats demanded more and more "rationalization" of post-secondary offerings -- that is, more students taught in fewer classes for less money. If a program couldn't fill its seats, it was in trouble. If it couldn't show good hiring numbers for its graduates, it was in trouble. If two colleges in the same region offered similar programs, one of those programs was in trouble.

The baby boom had ended around 1965. The long-predicted baby bust began to work its way through the education system, with enrollments declining in elementary schools in the 1970s in high schools and colleges a few years later. The "echo boomers" were now on their way, but they were relatively few and late to support a system based on ever-growing enrollments.

Competing for scarce students

International students, who pay the full cost of their education, became crucial to the whole post-secondary system. A Canadian education has become highly attractive to Asian families, so college recruiters headed to education fairs in Seoul and Beijing. They found increasing numbers wanted to go to a university, not a mere college. (When the crisis hit at Cap last week, university president Kris Bulcroft was in China, recruiting more students.)

As well, post-secondary institutions were now competing with one another to keep fewer students for longer times. Even for Canadian students, the best way to compete was to offer a piece of paper the other schools couldn't. A two-year certificate might get you an entry-level job in, say, tourism. But people with BA's were applying for the same jobs. So tourism students flocked back to schools that offered a BA in tourism, simply to keep up.

Individually, colleges began to wangle permission to offer such degrees. Some became "university colleges," offering degrees in both career and academic subjects. As semi-universities, these schools enjoyed more prestige than mere colleges. They recruited some students who would otherwise have gone to SFU or UBC, and those universities responded by lowering the grade point average needed for admission. The arms race was on.

Capilano remained a college, and was funded as such. Weldon Cowan of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators told The Tyee: "When some colleges were rebranded university colleges in the early nineties, the institutions received one-time grants and additional operating funds. Cap never had that lift."

Leveraged into unsustainability

In 2008, then-premier Gordon Campbell arrived on the Capilano campus to announce its promotion to university status. The hoopla was great, including cannons firing confetti. But he didn't increase funding. While administrators say they were told more money would come in future, nothing was put in writing and nothing was what arrived.

Step by step for 30 years, Capilano and other schools had responded to financial and demographic changes. Each change seemed manageable, even welcome, but each put them in a more precarious financial position. In effect, such schools are not only competing with one another; they are now leveraged into competing on an unsustainable level.

Capilano, having jumped straight from college to university status, found itself in the predicament of a career foreign service officer promoted to ambassadorial status who finds the salary inadequate for all the financial demands of the new job.

"The new designation has incurred costs," says Cowan: "Higher licensing costs and copyright license costs, administrative costs related to the senate structure versus the old ... structure, increased library resources, additional advising staff for degree courses, equipment costs for higher level courses, and development costs for new degree programs." 

Those costs finally caught up with Cap this spring. As outgoing vice-president Bill Gibson explained to The Tyee, even cuts entail costs: drop a course and you forgo the revenue the course would have brought in. So to cover a $1.3 million shortfall, Cap must cut $3 million. It can't even spend to remodel now-empty classrooms and studios; it can only turn out the lights and lock the doors.

Dead-end programs

All told, Gibson said, 50 Arts sections out of 624 have been cut, and 200 sections across the university out of 2,600 -- about 7.6 per cent. The university had lobbied Victoria all spring for an increase in funding, only to be told early in April that no increase would be available. The administration then decided that cuts should at least spare the strongest, most popular programs -- those leading to a degree. Even a one- or two-year certificate leading to a job looked like a dead end.

The way they took that decision, without consulting faculty, provoked a standing-room-only annual general meeting of the Capilano Faculty Association on April 30. Much of the meeting was taken up with protests against the unilateral decision.

In effect, three or four senior administrators had decided on the vertical cuts as a way to preserve Capilano's "university" qualities, sacrificing uncompetitive and "dead-end" programs. That it could do so without consulting faculty says something about the administrative culture that's developed over the years.

The crisis will come to a head on May 14, when the Capilano board of governors will ratify the planned cuts. Faculty and staff intend to lobby the board members before then, as well as crowding into all-candidates' meetings before the provincial election.

But the election may be irrelevant to Capilano's problem. Much of Cap's predicament developed during the last dozen years of Liberal governments, and even if the North Shore remains solid Liberal country, the Liberals are unlikely to form a government. An NDP government is equally unlikely to find rescue money when the province is deep in deficit. Even if a rescue comes, the atmosphere at Capilano could remain toxic for years.

What a new government might do, however, is to re-examine and rebuild the whole rickety structure of B.C. post-secondary. Capilano is not the only university in a jam. Schools should not have to depend on the timely arrival of ever more rich Chinese kids, or emergency bailouts, or the invention of a new degree program in some fashionable subject.

That structure should involve closer involvement of faculty in the running of the schools, and more transparency in decision-making. The schools in that structure might be smaller and more modest, but they would also be far more collegial -- and sustainable.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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