Success and challenges for post-secondary education in BC

January 12, 2001

For the second year running, BC takes first place in the CCPA's alternative guide to post-secondary education (PSE) in Canada. Unlike rankings that misleadingly pit institution against institution, "Missing Pieces" evaluates Canadian provinces' based on their commitment to maintaining quality, equity, accessibility and accountability in their universities and colleges.

The reasons for BC's success are no mystery. BC has made a significant investment in PSE over the past decade. Public spending on PSE climbed by 24% over the last 10 years. BC opened three new universities in the 1990s. Our system of colleges and institutes has also been substantially expanded, and tuition-free access to literacy and adult basic education programs has grown. Tuition fees have been frozen in public PSE institutions. At $2,500, average tuition fees in BC's universities are the second lowest in Canada, next to Quebec. BC also has the best needs-based grant system in the country.

Our investment in PSE has clearly paid off. The PSE participation rate in BC has gone from second worst at the start of the decade to the current position of fourth best in the country. Enrolment in PSE increased by 10% over the past ten years while the national average fell by 4%.

There remains, however, much room for further improvement in PSE in the province. Population growth and the rapid expansion of knowledge-based employment are placing a great deal of pressure on the system. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 new PSE spaces will be needed to meet rising demand levels over the next two decades.

The growing gap between the demand for post-secondary education and the publicly-funded programs that are available to students is producing an increasingly privatized and commercialized system. The number of private colleges and institutes in the province has nearly doubled since 1992. There are over 1,100 registered private post-secondary institutions operating in BC, more than in any other province.

Private institutions are not subject to the tuition freeze and many charge $10,000 a year or more for courses and programs that may not be recognized by other institutions. BC ranks seventh highest in Canada on average college tuition, largely due to the proliferation of private institutions. Moreover, students who obtain loans for study at private colleges have a default rate of 45%, in comparison with rates of 16% at public colleges and 11% at public universities, highlighting the questionable value of the programs offered by many private colleges. This is cause for concern for students and their families, and British Columbians in general as the province assumed responsibility for student loans this fall.

The failure of government funding to keep pace with growing demand for PSE has also put pressure on public institutions to find alternative sources of revenue. Our universities and colleges have become increasingly reliant on private sources of funding over the past decade, including new user fees and "cost-recovery" degree programs that circumvent the tuition freeze, cash or in-kind donations, corporate investment in research, and turning facilities into marketing sites for corporate products and services.

From 1990 to 1999, government support for BC's universities and colleges fell from 65% of total revenue to 56%. Nearly half of all private funding for PSE comes from corporations, and most of it takes the form of research grants and contracts. Only 7% of this revenue is spent on instruction and non-sponsored research. This means that corporations, not the public interest, are driving research priorities. This also means more crowded classrooms and less individual attention. BC dropped from fifth to sixth place over the past year in the PSE student to faculty ratio. The growing dependence on private funds also creates inequities and competition among institutions and places an undue influence on educational and research priorities.

Meeting the challenges in PSE will require continuing public investment. Maintaining quality, equity, accessibility and accountability means a commitment to adequate public funding, maintaining the tuition freeze with a view to eliminating tuition fees altogether, reversing the trend towards privatization in the system, improving the regulation of existing private institutions, and introducing province-wide standards to govern corporate involvement in public institutions.