The Education of Minister Chong

Maxed out tuition fees and a slew of other political tests face B.C.’s new minister of advanced education.

By Crawford Kilian 24 Jan 2005 |

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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Ida Chong became minister of advanced education late last year. She’s been almost unnoticed, but when the Liberals table their budget in February, she could find herself a very big issue in the May election.

By all accounts, Chong is a nice person who works hard for her Oak Bay constituents. Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC, says, “She’s likable and bright. Post-secondary isn’t an area of concentration for her, but she’s interested in Camosun College and University of Victoria.”

An educator with excellent contacts in the ministry sees Chong as an “up and comer” with a lot of energy who will maintain a holding pattern until the May election.

“She doesn’t have the academic credentials to stand up to a Martha Piper,” the educator says, “but she’s got the people skills.” So she’ll sit tight, get acquainted with the college and university presidents, and make a few good-news announcements—mostly about programs approved long before she took over.

Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators, is eager to get together with Chong. FPSE represents most of the faculty associations in the colleges and institutes, which offer programs usually cheaper and closer to home than the universities. But the minister can’t find time for her until late February.

Enough money?

The big anxiety for faculty and students alike is money: Money to pay for today’s overcrowded courses, money to find and keep new teachers, and money to pay for the 25,000 new seats the Liberals have promised to create in the system by 2010.

Rob Clift worries that B.C. colleges and universities will find it simply impossible to fill the thousands of new seats that the Liberals have promised.

“To pay for one student space in 2001-02 cost $8,920,” he says. The government’s projected post-secondary budget for 2005-06, divided by the total number of student seats, means just $2,751 will be available for every new seat.

In other words, $6,669 will have to come from somewhere beside the government. Clift predicts the total shortfall in post-secondary will be $28 million.

“We’re already $12 million short this year,” he says. He doesn’t expect the Liberals to restore the funding lost in the last three years. But if they don’t cover the $28 million shortfall for 2005-06, post-secondary will suddenly become a major election issue.

Right now, says Clift, B.C. is about at the Canadian average in tuition fees. But even a 10 percent increase would boost us to the second most expensive province for post-secondary tuition, right behind Nova Scotia.

Meeting the quotas

These budget worries aren’t new, and they’re only part of our post-secondary troubles.

Since the Liberals were elected in 2001, B.C.’s colleges and universities have experienced what assembly-line workers call a speedup. In each successive year they’ve had to put more students in classrooms on smaller and smaller budgets.

Like Soviet factories, the colleges have had to increase their “productivity” to meet arbitrarily increased quotas. A class enrolling only 15 students, for example, could be cancelled and replaced with one that enrolls 30. Emphasis predictably falls on the popular academic courses like Psych 100 and English composition, while special-interest courses are dropped.

Meanwhile students have had to pay more for the privilege of getting into such crowded classes. Scott Payne, spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, says tuition fees are the top issue for the CFS: “Average tuition has more than doubled,” he says, since the Liberals took power. Faced with increasing employer demand for diplomas, certificates, and degrees, students have had no choice but to pay more.

Mortgaging the Future

NDP leader Carole James promises to freeze tuition again, but that would be too little too late. Educators know that the tuition freeze maintained by the Glen Clark NDP was largely bogus. Provincial money for post-secondaries was also frozen, while fixed costs kept rising. The result was decrepit buildings and obsolete equipment. Now money is flowing into the system again, but much more of it is coming from students who can ill afford it.

“Access and affordability are the key issues,” says Cindy Oliver. “The demand is there, but statistics show enrolment problems. Schools can’t meet their targets because of tuition fees, especially in the Lower Mainland.”

Oliver notes that Chong hasn’t announced any solutions to the access and student-debt problems. “If funding doesn’t go up,” she says, “creating seats is pointless.”

Borrowing to finance your post-secondary education has become a way of life, but also a deterrent. To make borrowing less catastrophic, Victoria has a loan forgiveness program: your loan can be remitted if you’ve successfully completed the year. “But it’s limited to academic programs only,” says Rob Clift.

Clift thinks the forgiveness program was framed to deny loans to students in private post-secondaries, which offer career training but almost no academic courses. Many students enter private programs because their grades can’t get them into public colleges, and they have to borrow heavily to meet even higher tuition fees. If they could apply for loan forgiveness, the demand on the program would be impossibly high.

Credibility questions for post-secondaries

Cindy Oliver worries about the deregulation of the private training colleges. “Thousands of students are vulnerable,” she warns if such schools suddenly go out of business.

Rob Clift wonders about the new private degree-granting universities like Landsbridge University in Richmond and University of Canada West in Victoria. Such schools offer easy admission to students with low grades, and to foreign students willing to pay even higher fees. But their academic credibility is in doubt.

The public system’s credibility may also be in doubt, thanks to recruitment and retention issues. Only one college instructor in five is under the age of 40, and between a third and a half of all faculty will retire in the next few years. Since BC shares this problem with the rest of North America, hiring and keeping good faculty will depend on competitive wages, benefits, and workloads. Alberta and Ontario already pay far more at the top of the salary scale than does BC. Good new instructors and professors will not be interested in teaching crowded classes under speedup conditions.

“Bargaining will be critical,” says Cindy Oliver. “We want the best quality of education for our students, and that means a good contract.” So far, negotiations for a new provincial contract have not gone well even though the province has a much-touted $2 billion surplus.

An uncertain future

Ida Chong may be in a position to improve matters, if her government permits her to pump enough pre-election money into the system. She will especially need to offer more funding for new seats. As it stands now, the system won’t be able to afford those seats unless it gets more money from students. That would mean even higher student indebtedness—or students leaving school.

It could also mean even worse crowding. Colleges are already running courses on weekends because some students work full-time and can’t afford to quit their jobs—and because not enough classrooms are available during the week anyway. Twenty-five thousand new seats would require an enormous construction program for classrooms, labs, and offices. No such program is on the horizon. “The system should refuse to accept students it can’t teach,” Clift says.

As the new minister for advanced education, Ida Chong has an uncertain future. She will have to defend Liberal policies that have demoralized students and faculty alike. She may just drift through a blizzard of happy-face news releases until May, and then end up in a different ministry or out on the street again.

Even if the Liberals win re-election and she stays in her new ministry, she will have to contend with real problems that private universities and higher tuition fees won’t solve.

Crawford Kilian, a frequent contributor to The Tyee, has taught at Capilano College since it opened in 1968.

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