CAUT, the College Institute Educators' Association of B.C., the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association and the Capilano College Faculty Association opened two days of hearings on the future of post-secondary education in Vancouver, March 17, with a keynote address by former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent.
Broadbent said student debt loads as high as $25,000 would have been inconceivable at the time he graduated from university.
"When I graduated university back in 1959 as a working-class kid from Oshawa, I was full of optimism," Broadbent said. "Within a year, my student debts were completely paid off and I never looked back."
Following Broadbent's speech, a number of students appeared before the hearings to voice their concerns about the recently announced increases in college and university tuition in the province.
Summer McFadyen, B.C. chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, strongly criticized the provincial government of Gordon Campbell for completely deregulating tuition fees.
"Students who desire and are qualified to study pharmacy, law, and medicine will have to pay between 42 per cent and 75 per cent more than students last year," McFadyen said. "We are in the knowledge-based economy. It is estimated that by 2004, 72 per cent of all new jobs will require a post-secondary education. We can't afford to price education out of reach for so many people."
Brad West, a high school student from Riverside Secondary School in Port Coquitlam, said the increase in tuition fees means many young people are giving up on their career dreams.
"It is a sad day in this country when one of my friends says she is no longer going to UBC to be a doctor," West told the hearings. "It's not because she doesn't have the grades or she has lost interest in being a doctor. The reason she can no longer be the doctor she dreamed about being is because her family can't afford it."
"What message are all these cuts and changes sending to the youth of B.C.?"
asked Haven Anderson, a grade 11 student at Ideal Mini School in Vancouver.
"That those who can pay matter and those who can't don't? That those who have the most deserve more and those who have the least deserve less?"
Rising fees pose a significant barrier to students studying adult basic education and en as a second language, argued Christa Peters, organizer of the King Edward Students' Association.
"Increases in tuition fees will mean that some of our students will never receive the basic literary training they need to function in our society," Peters warned. "And laying off faculty and staff will reduce the quality of education we receive."
Several presenters suggested the B.C. government intends to privatize post- secondary education.
"By underfunding the colleges while overworking faculty and overcharging students, the government makes the private post-secondary institutions look more attractive," said Crawford Kilian, coordinator of the communications program at Capilano College.
Kilian also criticized Bill 28, the provincial legislation that overrides collective agreements and gives college administrators new powers to increase class sizes and force faculty to teach on-line courses.
"Under this act, colleges can order any faculty member to teach any course on-line, regardless of the instructor's wishes or expertise," he noted. "This seems like a baffling step, especially to one like me who has taught on-line courses since the 1980s. I know it's not a medium for all students or all teachers, and it is an unforgiving medium for all but the most motivated students."
"The B.C. government has announced its intentions to allow private institutions to grant degrees," added Maureen Shaw, president of the College Institute Educators' Association. "This threatens to open up a whole Pandora's box of problems given international trade agreements, issues of inequality and astronomical costs for students in private institutions, and poor regulation of educational quality and integrity."
Other speakers noted the federal government must also bear some of the blame for the problems now facing colleges and universities.
"Instead of using the budget surplus to restore the funding it cut for core operating grants, the federal government has trickled the money back into the post-secondary system with programs that are designed to largely benefit the 'have' institutions," argued Rob Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. "The result is that Canadians no longer have the expectation that they, or their children, will have opportunities for post-secondary education and training."
Several community groups appearing before the hearings highlighted the difficulties faced by refugees and recent immigrants to Canada in accessing post-secondary education.
"We're concerned that recent immigrants and refugees to Canada will not be able to afford to improve their education, or have foreign studies recognized because of the rising costs of post-secondary education," stated John Argue of the Vancouver-based Working Group on Poverty.
"This is at the same time that we've learned from the recent census figures that because of slow population growth Canada will have to depend upon immigrants and refugees to an even greater degree to fill holes in the labour market. It seems inconsistent to me that we're adopting policies that hinder access to post-secondary education at the very time the country will have to depend upon workers with more advanced skills and qualifications to help the country's economy."
The Vancouver hearings were chaired by former CAUT president Bill Bruneau, Carolyn Chalifoux of the New Westminster and District Labour Council, and Neal Nicholson, a chartered accountant and former chair of the board of Douglas College.