Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2002

Remote Communities Hard Hit by Funding Shortfall

A former British Columbia Minister of Education and chair of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada is warning the nation's universities and colleges are suffering because of a lack of political leadership and will.

Paul Ramsay made the comments in his first public appearance since leaving politics at a hearing on the future of post-secondary education hosted by CAUT in Prince George last month.

"It is my belief that there is a stunning lack of a coherent plan for post-secondary education in this country," Ramsay said Jan. 17. "We seem incapable of coming together as a nation and setting out our goals for a system, agreeing on a size we need to have, and agreeing on principles of access and support for it. Instead, we constantly devolve it to a myriad of federal agencies and 10 provincial governments. At any time it is remarkable if just two or three of those provincial governments are even reading off the same page."

He said Canada must build a strong national post-secondary education system, but that neither the federal government nor the provinces are committed to the task.

"We do not have a commitment to post-secondary education at the federal level," Ramsay said. "And with all due respect to my former colleagues, the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada is not capable of filling that role. The suggestion of CAUT for a federal post-secondary education act would be one step in the right direction. Without that leadership at the national level we will not achieve the national will to build a post-secondary education system with sufficient capacity and access to meet the needs of this country."

The hearings in Prince George, jointly hosted with the University of Northern British Columbia Faculty Association, the Faculty Association of the College of New Caledonia, and the College Institute Educators' Association of B.C. were the third in a series of public events CAUT is organizing to highlight the challenges facing universities and colleges in Canada.

Students, faculty, university and college administrators, and community groups appeared at the hearings chaired by Wendy John, associate regional director general of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs; Murry Krause, College of New Caledonia board chair and executive director of the Central Interior Native Health Society; and Anne Martin, president of the Prince George Art Gallery and former vice-chair of the UNBC board of governors.

UNBC student David Russell said the most critical issue facing post-secondary education is the lack of public funding.

"The easiest way to find money is by increasing tuition," Russell said. "But if we let tuition rise to match costs, we'll start seeing only the wealthy getting an education."

British Columbia has frozen or reduced tuition fees since 1996, but student groups are fearful the newly-elected Liberal government will eliminate the freeze.

"If tuition increases significantly, that may turn away some of our students," noted Nedinska MacEachern, director of external affairs with the Northern Undergraduate Student Society at UNBC. "I think you'll see less of a diversity among the student population as a result of increased tuition."

Ramsay argued the debate shouldn't be limited to whether or not the freeze should be lifted, but whether fees should be eliminated altogether.

"It is time to have a national debate on whether we should be charging our young people and not so young people to attend college or university," Ramsay said. "We took that decision on secondary education years ago when we recognized that having people graduate with a high school diploma was value not just to them but to all of us. I think the same is true of post-secondary education now. Some of our competitors on the international market have already made those decisions. And if Ireland can do it, why on earth can't Canada?"

UNBC graduate student Jamie Campbell said funding woes have affected graduate students insofar as there are fewer professors to supervise graduate students, that graduate teaching assistants are required to take on more work for the same pay, and that fewer graduate courses are being offered.

"There is a severe shortage of professors, specifically tenured or tenure-track," Campbell said. "Too often shortages are filled with sessional instructors who are qualified educators, but cannot take on all the duties that tenured or tenure-track professors must. More professor positions are needed to provide adequate graduate supervision, to decrease the pressure on teaching assistants, to lower class size and expand course availability."

University administrators are increasingly making use of contract academic staff to trim costs, said UNBC sessional instructor Ian Birch.

"There is a ghettoization within universities with regards to teaching staff that is systemic within Canada," Birch said. "We tend to get the largest classes to teach, the classes that no one else wants to teach. Some sessionals can't even go to program meetings so they don't even have a voice in the way their program operates."

He added the vulnerability sessionals face has serious social consequences.

"When you have sessionals teaching university courses and they're afraid of losing their jobs, inevitably it puts them within certain bounds of what they're going to say in the classroom," Birch said. "That's very destructive to the public interest because they may not be as critical as they should be of the world around them."

Darwyn Coxson, president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia and a faculty member at UNBC, said his university's location in a rural and remote environment is an attraction for some but the lack of support for teaching and research makes it difficult to keep faculty.

"There isn't a week that goes by that I don't talk to somebody who's been approached to take a job elsewhere," Coxson said. "I line up students with instructors and before one student can even finish a graduate program I'm busy finding someone else because the turnover rate is so high."

CNC president Terry Weninger agreed that post-secondary institutions in rural and remote communities face unique challenges and warned the college system's ability to respond to the needs of these communities is "perilously close to collapsing."

"Sometimes we are too timid when it comes to outlining the challenges for fear of appearing to be self-serving," Weninger said. "But there are three challenges facing the college system and CNC in particular: funding, funding, and funding. We have as a college never faced such financial challenges as we do today."

UNBC president Charles Jago and CNC president Terry Weninger face the serious funding challenges of rural colleges.
Weninger said colleges like CNC that serve rural and remote communities face serious funding disadvantages but are expected to be even more involved in the economic and social development of local communities.

UNBC president Charles Jago also noted there are higher expectations placed upon colleges and universities in rural and remote regions but that the funding to fulfill that public mission is not always provided.

"I remember when R&R used to mean something positive," Jago said. "But rural and remote — that R&R — means inadequate health care and a poor level of social service.

"The need to draw attention to the role of post-secondary education within regional economies is of paramount importance. I'm not sure there is a good enough appreciation of this within the province of British Columbia — of just how vital that role is and of how important appropriate levels of public funding are to ensure these institutions can do what the public expects them to do."

Andrew Yellowback, a native elder and CNC board member, appeared at the hearings to highlight the need for governments to recognize the growing demand within the Aboriginal population for post-secondary education.

"Access to post-secondary education is critical because every degree conferred on an Aboriginal person represents an advancement of not just a particular individual or community, but the whole human race," Yellowback said. "Every degree conferred is a repudiation of all the racial slurs against Aboriginal people's humanity and justifies the faith of those who kept going when the future seemed hopeless."

While participants at the hearings urged both the federal and provincial governments to increase funding for post-secondary education, there was concern the B.C. government was determined to further cut services.

"We've heard the announcement that most provincial ministries will be cut by 20, 35, or even 50 per cent, and that health and education spending will be frozen for three years," noted George Davison, president of the College of New Caledonia faculty association. "Because of growing enrolments and costs that increase faster than the rate of inflation, a freeze is in effect a cut. I'd recommend the provincial government revisit their approach to tax cuts and cuts to public services."

CIEA president Maureen Shaw echoed the concerns about the funding freeze.

"Given the critical need for more education, the three-year funding freeze is going to hurt student access and the quality of programs and services our institutions offer," she warned.

CAUT's hearings on the future of post-secondary education will continue until April with events scheduled for Fredericton, St. John's, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver and Windsor.