My daughter called me one day last fall to tell me her friend, who dreams of becoming a nurse, was distraught after trying to register to upgrade her high school science course credits so she could apply for nursing school. She’d run into the new, harsh reality for B.C. adults who have graduated from high school — upgrade courses that used to be free now come with hefty fees.
The friend, who I’m not naming to respect her privacy, is 22 and supports herself with two jobs. She rents an East Vancouver basement suite with two roommates and needs her car to get to work. Her income is just enough to make her ineligible for government grants to help with course fees yet she’s just scraping by and has some small debts she’s trying to pay off.
She’s one of hundreds of B.C. adult students who had the door to post-secondary education slam in their faces following the government’s quiet cancellation of its “Education Guarantee” two years ago. In what can best be described as a mean-spirited, penny-wise, pound-foolish decision, “graduated” students must pay for what used to be free high school courses to get the credits or marks they need to get into post-secondary programs.
The B.C. government announced the funding change in a December 2014 government news release that said: “… beginning May 1, 2015, the Ministry of Education will no longer provide funding to school districts for tuition-free upgrading courses for adults who already hold a high school diploma.”
I was an elected Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee at the time and my colleagues and I responded swiftly to ask government to reconsider the decision as we feared this would mean many students would be unable to continue their education.
Our pleas, along with those of many others, were ignored and what we feared has come true — far fewer students are now taking these courses.
A report presented at the VSB’s Management Coordinating standing committee Jan. 4 meeting says their 2015/16 Adult Education enrolment was less than half of what it was in 2013/14. The total number of students who took one or more VSB Adult Education courses in 2013/14 was 6,661. That number plunged to 3,047 by 2015/16. The report says it's expected to drop even more for the current school year, once final numbers are in.
In 2014/15 there were 93 students in the “youth category” — those aged 16 -19 — and that dropped by two thirds to 29 students for 2016/17.
Vancouver Elementary School Teachers' Association president Chloe McKnight calls the declines "devastating fall out from the government's cancellation of its Education Guarantee."
The Vancouver Secondary Teachers' Association president, Rory Brown, said at the meeting that the numbers were "brutal" and called for the school board to advocate for restoration of adult education funding. The board's sole, appointed trustee, Dianne Turner, who replaced the nine-member elected board after its October firing, did not respond to the call for advocacy.
This enrolment drop is bleak and ominous.
It’s bleak because many would-be students are now stuck in low-paying jobs because they can’t get prerequisites they need to get into post-secondary programs that would enable them to get better jobs. It’s ominous because the VSB report dryly notes that its “operational capacity is currently under-utilized.”
That may be a signal of more cuts, consolidations or closures to come for the VSB’s Adult Education Centres.
It's already closed several over the past few years: the Lord Roberts Adult Education Centre, the Downtown East-Side Adult Education Centre, the Hastings Adult Education Centre (which was located at Britannia Secondary) and its South Hill Youth Programs. It’s now down to three centres — South Hill, Main Street at Gladstone Secondary and the Gathering Place, which now only offers self-paced programs.
Fewer sites and courses make it harder for adult students to access classes, as many rely on transit and have family and work responsibilities to juggle. It also means less flexible scheduling, which means even funded students may find it harder to get the courses they need.
In the spring of 2015 I spoke at a rally at the Croation Cultural Centre that was organized by a coalition of adult education supporters. Hundreds of people attended and many spoke about how funding cuts would affect them.
I was struck by how many of the speakers were women and new Canadians, and how many talked about how family responsibilities — caring for ill parents or young children ‘— had interrupted their education.
They talked about their dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers and more. They knew they could access student loans and grants once they got to post-secondary, but they had no way to pay the $550 course fees the VSB now charges students who are no longer eligible for government funding.
It was both heartbreaking and infuriating to hear their stories. These were people who wanted to put in the work to improve their futures for themselves and their families — which we know also benefits society as a whole. They wanted to give back through bettering themselves, yet that opportunity was now out of their financial reach.
This strikes me as cruel and shortsighted. While fees may be overwhelming for a single parent working a minimum wage job and trying to survive in an expensive city, it’s a relatively small investment for government to make.
Once these students complete their post-secondary programs they will be able to get better jobs and pay more taxes. They and their families are likely to be healthier and their children are statistically more likely to be successful in school. In short, investing in adult education is fiscally smart and brings excellent long-term returns. The VSB has no shortage of inspiring success stories from its adult education students.
Funding for Adult Education and all students who need access to it should be part of any political party’s plan for building a strong B.C. economy. Let’s hope the pressure of a provincial election this May leads to restored funding for all adult students.
Note: Adult Education courses are offered by B.C.’s school districts and community colleges. Both have been affected by funding cuts.