A dozen North Island College department chairs have responded to the B.C. government’s clawback of free tuition for adult upgrade courses by sharpening their own claws.
The North Island College’s Department Chair Working Group has fired back at the decision in a letter to education ministers and MLAs saying the elimination of free upgrading will put vulnerable students at risk and runs counter to the government’s own Skills for Jobs Blueprint.
“Taking away the tuition for the free upgrade will close the door for students to move into academic and trade openings and put up barriers for them to enter the economy,” said Bill Parkinson, head of North Island College’s Department Chair Working Group. “By taking away free upgrading, it certainly takes away the opportunity for some people to enter the trades.”
The Ministry of Advanced Education announced in December that, beginning Jan. 1, 2015, B.C.’s post-secondary schools would be allowed to charge tuition fees for adults upgrading courses, including ESL language programs. On May 1, the government will no longer provide funding for tuition-free upgrading courses for adults who already hold a high school diploma.
Since 2008 adult upgrade tuition had been paid through provincial grants, and in 2012 ESL language courses were also tuition-free, with the aid of a federal grant. The B.C. government will continue to offer a grant to adults seeking upgrade courses, but it will be distributed based on low-income eligibility.
“High school is free, but further upgrading is not,” Education Minister Peter Fassbender said when the grant program was announce. “I think it is reasonable to expect adults who’ve already graduated to contribute to these costs.”
But the educators are concerned that many adult students — some of whom have been displaced from careers, have suffered a workplace injury or are trying to move into a new career — will slip through the cracks with the added expense and bureaucracy of upgrading.
“There is an upgrading grant that students can access, but it’s a low income threshold,” said Caitlin Hartnett, NIC Adult Basic Education chair. “There’s some concern, for sure, whether students will be able to qualify for it. And for some, just an up-front cost can make them wary of the form-filling they’re going to need to do.”
Parkinson noted that filling out of forms will also add an extra burden to the CUPE support staffs at B.C.’s post-secondary institutions.
Tuition will remain free for school-aged students and adults working toward the B.C. Dogwood diploma.
The Ministry of Advance Education began providing free tuition for upgrading courses through a $6.9 million fund in 2008. But it says that over the past six years, delivery costs have increased and institutions have indicated it is no longer sustainable to deliver the courses tuition-free.
Effective today, the government is increasing the total grant funding to $7.6 million.
The NIC working group’s letter was sent to Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson, as well as to MLAs Don McRae, Scott Fraser and Claire Trevena. It was signed by 12 department chairs.
In the letter, the educators said the decision to eliminate the free tuition creates a significant barrier to accessing education; adds to the burden of growing student loan debt; and excludes the most vulnerable citizens from full participation in both educational institutions and the labour market.
It adds the Adult Upgrading Grant is insufficient and will quickly be exhausted given the pervasive financial need of students.
“We find it contrary to the Liberal government’s talk about the B.C. Skills for Jobs Blueprint,” said Parkinson. “Now we’re sensing they’ve put an additional barrier in place for people in limited circumstances.”