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Why Is Higher Ed off the Election Radar?

If you have to ask what an education costs, you can't afford one.

By Crawford Kilian 13 May 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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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An election campaign, Kim Campbell famously said, is no time to discuss policy. Another Campbell, Gordon, wants us to be the most educated, literate province in the country. But he doesn't really say how we'll do it.

Post-secondary education policy has been a non-issue in the current campaign, but it's critically important to every household in BC. What happens to our colleges, institutes and universities will largely determine whether the next decade is golden, or dross.

In the 38 years I've been teaching in BC post-secondary, the province has gone through nine provincial elections. Some governments have been pretty good for the colleges and universities: under Dave Barrett, the community colleges expanded dramatically across the province, and under Bill Vander Zalm we actually got remarkably good support. It wasn't too bad under Harcourt either.

Under Glen Clark and then Gordon Campbell, however, BC post-secondary has become increasingly unable to meet the surging demand for diplomas and degrees. Both Clark and Campbell have preferred the appearance of good education to the real thing.

Clark (and then Ujjal Dosanjh) made a fuss about freezing tuition fees, but other funding was frozen too. As colleges and universities faced rising fixed costs, they had to cut corners. Buildings grew shabby. Soft-drink corporations got exclusive deals. Classrooms and offices were rarely cleaned. Tuition may have been frozen, but students faced new costs: fees to apply, fees to graduate, and of course fees to park their cars. Don't ask what textbooks cost these days.

Schools as factories

When Campbell came in, life got worse for faculty and students alike. He tore up collective agreements, and now programs would live or die depending on the bodies they could cram into a single classroom. Like Stalinist factories, colleges got quotas for FTE (full-time equivalent) students. For the first three years of the BC Liberal government, they had to somehow enroll more students every year on a progressively shrinking budget.

Campbell ended the freeze and tuition costs soared. At my own Capilano College, a 3-credit course is now $300 (not counting application and registration fees). In constant 2005 dollars, the same course in 1984 cost about $60.

We faculty felt trapped: we had to recruit ever more students, while charging them ever-higher tuition. They amazed us by paying anyway. The problem now was trying to shoehorn all the kids into our classrooms, built to hold no more than 30 or 35. The grading load became awesome.

Those soaring enrolments showed that the Liberals understood our students' predicament better than we did. Post-secondary education is no longer for the wealthy and the scholarly. It's the only way most young people can hope to find a decent job.

The paper chase

Two years ago, BC Stats reported on the value of education. Up to age 24, university grads earn only 34 percent more than those who haven't even completed high school. But thereafter, the gap widens rapidly. A university grad aged 55-64 is earning 72 percent more. Maybe the kids don't know the exact percentages, but they know they'll be screwed without a post-secondary piece of paper.

The growing numbers of women in post-secondary reflect another important trend. They're even more motivated than men to succeed in the workplace. A minority in post-secondary just 25 years ago, women students have become a majority in the colleges and in some professional schools like law. As a result, their earnings have actually grown faster than men's.

Clearly, the Liberals understood that today's students would pay almost any price to get through post-secondary. But some just can't afford it.

Robert Clift, the executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations, recently told me, "I think there remains a great deal of unmet demand that we don't know about because students are simply not applying. I expect the actual turn-away numbers for the universities are two to three times the official numbers because of the deterrent effect of high entrance requirements.

"At the same time," Clift went on, "we are facing the odd problem at some of the colleges of declining enrolment... I think the reason suggested by the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators and the Canadian Federation of Students -- that is, tuition fees going through the roof -- is not an unreasonable proposition."

Students as captive market

Colleges and universities have become locked into a kind of arms race, running programs that require ever more time spent in school. The colleges used to offer one- and two-year diplomas. Then some became "university colleges," granting bachelor's degrees. UBC and SFU grads who majored in anthropology or art history are turning to the colleges and institutes to acquire job skills.

To a disturbing extent, students are becoming a captive market. A diploma no longer ensures a decent job. So they return for a degree, which may help them get a better job (until a master's becomes the bare minimum). In the mid-1980s, a full-time college student would spend $600 of today's dollars on tuition and would be gone in a year or two. Today's students are paying $3,000 or more for a year's tuition, and they have to keep coming back year after year.

Another problem has arisen with the credentials race: lack of capital investment. For at least a decade, post-secondaries have been functioning with almost no slack in the system. It's a seller's market. Classrooms are full, computer labs are jammed, and spare offices don't exist. We're selling the prospect of future wealth, not amenities like clean classrooms and student-teacher interviews.

Meanwhile, the workplace is demanding people with new skill sets and up-to-the-minute training. How can we train such workers? Time to develop new courses and programs is almost nonexistent. Good ideas succumb to bureaucratic turf wars. Once developed, programs are expensive to market, and interviewing applicants is time-consuming. Because classroom space is so scarce, it's hard to find room for new programs without axing old ones.

As a result, post-secondary is adopting some unusual and awkward arrangements, like intensive weekend courses. This suits some students who are working full-time and can't attend classes any other time, but it can be tough on students and teachers alike.

Who will teach class of 2010?

Recruiting new faculty is going to be increasingly tough also. Almost no new instructors go straight into a fulltime appointment. Most are "adjuncts" or "non-regulars" who pick up a class here and a class there. They live by Disraeli's consoling words: "While there is death, there is hope." When my generation of teachers finally totters off to retirement, the adjuncts will come into their own. Maybe.

BC Stats foresees a big problem in faculty recruitment. The Liberals have promised 25,000 new post-secondary seats. Meanwhile, half of today's university professors, and a third of college instructors, will be retired by 2011.

Between that turnover plus the need for new teachers, BC Stats estimates we'll need 4,500 new faculty between now and 2010. That's about half the current total teaching population. Every other post-secondary in North America will have a comparable need for new people.

With that kind of demand, faculty will be able to pick and choose. Post-secondaries will have to offer salaries and working conditions that my colleagues and I can only dream about.

Or maybe not. Government may decide to rebrand post-secondary in a brutally simple way: Go back to the old elite system. Hire a few high-priced academic superstars whose reputation will attract students. With the money left over, hire a bunch of grad students and second-raters. Charge students a fortune in tuition, deliberately consigning less-affluent students back into dead-end jobs.

That prospect will drive students and their families to desperate lengths to raise money for tuition. The alternative to mortgaging your future will be downward social mobility into a vast new underclass.

The Liberals say they want BC to be the best-educated, most literate province in the country. Four years ago, they said they'd respect contracts. We have all paid a high tuition fee to learn the Liberals' lesson.

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

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