British Columbia

B.C. government announces review of post-secondary funding

After years of complaints from students and educators about the rising costs of post-secondary education in British Columbia, the province announced a major review Thursday of the funding model for colleges and universities.

Students and educators have long cited need to make universities and colleges more affordable

B.C.'s government has announced a review of post-secondary funding to be completed by the summer of 2023. (CBC)

After years of complaints from students and educators about the rising costs of post-secondary education in British Columbia, the province announced a major review Thursday of the funding model for colleges and universities.

According to a government release, the review will take aim at the per-student calculation for block funding which accounts for 75 per cent of the money the province gives B.C.'s 25 post-secondary institutions annually.

It's a formula that has been in place for more than 20 years — one that critics have long suggested has resulted in a serious financial imbalance between major universities and more remote schools struggling to stay afloat.

"We've been actively campaigning for government one way or another to engage in this process. We've known it's been almost two decades since a funding review has been completed," said Michael Gauld, secretary treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Students.

"We're just glad that it's occurring. Twenty years is a long time — especially for such an important public service such as post-secondary to be reviewed."

Rising costs

The review will be headed by Don Wright, a former head of the B.C. Institute of Technology who later served as deputy minister to the premier, cabinet head and head of public service.

According to the government's release, the main goals of the review will be establishing a fair and impartial funding model, better aligning funding with the skills and needs of communities served by colleges and universities and expanding support and affordability for students.

Students and educators have long complained about the rising cost of college and university education in British Columbia. (CBC)

Another of review's goals will also be to "ensure action on reconciliation and implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and success of Indigenous learners."

Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C. president Brent Calvert said plans for the review have been in the works for some time.

"It's very welcome news," he told CBC News. "It's been 20 years since it's been looked at and education has changed at the post-secondary level quite significantly."

A 2018 submission from Calvert's organization to a select standing committee on finance pointed to changes in the early 2000s under the former Liberal government as the point when costs started to rise.

At that point, a freeze on tuition was lifted and the province moved from its previous formula to handing out block grants each year based on a target number of full-time equivalent students for each institution to serve.

According to the submission, the percentage of government funding has dropped in the intervening decades from up to 80 per cent of budgets to below 50 per cent — leading to increased tuition fees and reliance on international students to make up the shortfall.

Larger research universities also have more possible places to look for money through grants and bequests.

Calvert said the result has been a slow erosion of programs at smaller institutions looking to cut costs while keeping up the number of full-time equivalent students tied to block funding levels.

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators also claimed tightening purse strings led to hiring poorly-paid sessional instructors at the expense of full-time tenure track teaching positions.

Targeted funding

Critics have called for an increase in funds targeted at specific programs, particularly for smaller institutions, where administrators have had to cut courses to stay afloat.

While he welcomed a look at block funding, Calvert said his organization was disappointed the review would not also extend to targeted funding, which is critical at the moment in developing programs to deliver needed skills for professions like nursing and early childhood education.

Gauld said affordability is a particular problem for students in communities outside the Lower Mainland who feel forced to move to more expensive locations to access post-secondary education.

"There are large institutions that are funded quite well and their portion of the pie is way larger proportionally, compared to smaller institutions, especially the more remote," Gauld said.

Gauld said all British Columbians benefit from money spent on helping smaller colleges and universities train an emerging workforce. 

The first phase of the review will involve consultation with student, labour and education sector associations, along with public post-secondary institutions.

A final report of key findings will be made public by summer of 2023.

The second phase will develop policy options and inform the design of an "updated, modern funding model."

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