Pre-Election Letter to CUFA BC Members

Created 10 May 2013 14:05

Colleagues and friends,

As we approach Election Day on Tuesday May 14th, I’d like to offer some thoughts about the impact of the last twelve years of the BC Liberal government on universities and academic staff from the perspective of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC.

At the end of their first mandate and into the beginning of their second, the Liberals under Gordon Campbell were very supportive of the public universities. There were no huge increases in funding, but the government provided funding that was adequate and predictable. The Liberals made smart investments by increasing the number of student spaces and expanding medical and nursing education throughout the province. While students had been burdened with substantial tuition-fee increases during Campbell’s first mandate, by 2005 these had leveled off and their future growth was limited to the rate of inflation. We also saw periods of intense facility construction on campuses during the Campbell years. Although there were strains between the government and the universities during this earlier period, generally the relationship was professional and productive.

All of this changed dramatically in 2008 when the Campbell government announced a surprise cut in promised funding for universities and colleges two weeks before the start of the new fiscal year. Although CUFA BC and others managed to persuade the Campbell government to restore the cut just before the 2009 provincial election, the productive working relationship had been shattered.

Overall, what is the legacy of the past 12 years, beyond new buildings?

When we consider constant dollar values, the Liberal government’s per student support for post-secondary education has decreased by 14% since 2001. During the 2009 provincial election, the Liberals quietly axed provincial funding for forestry research, creating significant problems at the University of Northern BC. They tried to kill the Therapeutics Initiative at the University of BC, have been uneven in their support for the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and have promoted an “accounting mentality” that strangles our university administrations, increasing by 30% the number of reports that have to be filed annually since 2001. Moreover, the Liberal government botched the opportunity they had in their hands to plan for the future of BC post-secondary education during the Campus 2020 initiative in 2006/07.

Since Christy Clark became Premier in 2011, the province’s universities have not been on the government’s radar screen at all. In the nine months I’ve been president of CUFA BC, we’ve had three Ministers of Advanced Education and only one of them had even a slight interest in meeting with us. The only significant post-secondary policy initiative of the Clark government was to pick an unnecessary fight with faculty associations in 2011/12 over which faculty members were eligible to be members of the board of governors. Their goal seems to be management without consultation: a position fundamentally at odds with the collegial principles on which BC’s universities were established.

We have seen our institutions further pushed by the Clark government to increase the number of undergraduate students without any increase in funding for those added placements. A successful graduate fellowship program was discontinued in 2011, leaving us with no provincial support to help us in the competitive world of attracting and keeping excellent graduate students. In having no provincial graduate fellowship program, we remain far behind Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. This puts our universities at a significant disadvantage to those provinces in attracting graduate students and in supporting the best BC students to remain in the province for their graduate programs.

We have seen nothing from the Clark government to address the growing levels of student debt as tuition costs continue to rise. After adjusting for inflation, university tuition fees have increased by 54% since 2001, and now constitute a considerably higher proportion of university operating revenue than they did in 2001.

There has been nothing substantial offered by the BC Liberals in terms of needs-based grants to help first-generation university attendees or Aboriginal youth both get to university and to support them once they are there.

The relationship between the provincial government and the universities has deteriorated to such a point that even our university presidents, who have reasons to be friendly to any sitting government, have publically criticized the Clark government’s post-secondary education directions.

Your local faculty association’s efforts to work within the constraints created by the Liberal government while ensuring you receive competitive compensation, fair working conditions and the maintenance of a collegial governance system are constantly stymied by the Public Sector Employers’ Council (PSEC). The Council, which operates under the direction of the Provincial Cabinet, predetermines what our employers are allowed to bargain with faculty associations. Consequently, there is no opportunity to use the give-and-take of bargaining to try to solve local problems. Rather, PSEC creates a lock-step bargaining structure that fails to deal with the unique aspects of our profession and promotes conflict between faculty associations and university administrations.

That’s the Liberals’ record. But what of the future?

The Liberal party has not offered anything of solid interest to universities during this election campaign. Indeed, in the 2013 budget the Liberals announced that if re-elected, they will enact a $50 million cut to university and college annual operating grants over the next three years. Money that would have been used to operate all those new buildings constructed over the past decade, amongst other things. There is unanimous agreement in the post-secondary sector that the so-called “administrative savings” the Liberals have claimed this cut represents are fictitious. If this planned cut goes ahead, students are going to feel the effect in the classroom and in the support services available to them.

In looking to Mr. Dix and the NDP to see what they would do differently, we are heartened by their commitment to a $100 million needs-based student grant program, which will help pay part of post-secondary education costs and reduce student debt load for those who need assistance the most.

We remain concerned, however, that the NDP have not yet committed to cancelling the planned $50 million cut to university and college operating grants over the next three years. Nor have they commented on proposals to create a BC Graduate Fellowship Program, to restore provincial government support for forestry research, or to provide predictable funding to the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

While we need to see more clarity from the NDP and Mr. Dix about their intentions towards higher education, nothing we have seen indicates the NDP could or would be more obstructionist or uninterested in universities than the present Liberal government.

It is in this context that I encourage you and your colleagues to vote on Tuesday May 14th.

Sincerely yours,

Richard Kool, Ed.D.
Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC