George Davison's speech to the BC Federation of Students

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Thanks to the BC Federation of Students (BCFS) for inviting Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC President George Davison to address attendees at their annual general meeting Saturday, January 13. Here's George's speech to BCFS members, underscoring the importance of reducing student debt and addressing post-secondary system underfunding.


It’s a pleasure to be here today with all of you to talk about the incredible, life-changing potential of post-secondary education, and what we’re doing to remove financial or structural barriers so everyone in BC has the ability to access local, affordable, quality post-secondary education.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging and thanking you for the great work you have done in advocating for students. Discussions around post-secondary system funding (or underfunding) are complex, and you deserve a tremendous amount of credit for not only bringing issues such as the need for tuition-free adult basic education to the public’s attention, but doing so in a way that brings students, educators, and the public together in productive dialogue to look for solutions.

When I started university many years ago, my tuition was $450 for the year. I was able to finance my education through a combination of grants, on-campus work, and summer jobs. I remember living at home in Ottawa, taking 6 courses at Carleton the first term, 5 the next – a crazy load – for about $40 per course. I had no debt for the first 13 years of my post-secondary journey, completing an Honours BA, MA, and 4 years of a PhD program. I only took out a student loan at the end of my doctoral degree. I finished my PhD in 1989 and had ten years to pay off the $4000 loan.

As I began my teaching career, I could see firsthand the impact that the funding shift from government to students was having. Tuition was about $100 per course; my institution was a comprehensive community college offering programs in 9 academic divisions; 84 per cent of institutional funding came from govt, just 10 per cent from tuition; there were no international students paying profit-generating tuition fees. The provincial NDP froze tuition for several years – which was good for students – but at the same time, the federal Liberal government were slashing post-secondary funding through cuts to provincial transfers.

Though difficult to see at the time, the ground was already being dug out from under us in the 1980s, while I was still in school myself. Brian Mulroney's Conservative government froze provincial transfers in 1984, and each province had to make up funding deficits created each year by inflationary costs.

Federal cuts worsened in 1993 when the federal Liberal government undertook a social policy review. What followed was a massive de-funding of education, health and social program. In BC this meant that hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding was withheld from the province throughout the 1990s. To their credit, the NDP government of the time managed to uphold tuition fee freeze between 1996 and 2000, and even reduced fees by 5 per cent in 2000-01.

When the BC Liberals came to power in 2001, they wasted no time picking up where their federal counterparts left off, seeking to make up the federal shortfall from students and their families. Between 2002 and 2005 tuition fees in BC were completey deregulated,  ushering in dramatic fee increases, the likes of which had never before been seen in our province. In just two years tuition in BC more than doubled, and at some institutions nearly tripled.

The change hit students and families so hard that government imposed a 2 per cent cap on domestic tuition and other fees in 2005. The cap was not legislated and the regulations mandating the cap were intentionally weak. This allowed institutions to find new and creative means each year to circumvent the tuition fees rules like cutting a program and re-starting it under a new name a fee structure – a process that is as obvious as it is morally corrupt.

The result has been that despite the cap, and because it is a cap and not a freeze, the cost of BC post-secondary education continues to rise dramatically. Stress on students increases each year, leaving less time for studies as students focus more on work in order to afford ever-increasing costs. When income doesn’t match costs the result is inevitable: debt.

Sure enough, patterns of student debt closely follow cuts in funding. In 1983 the average student debt was $12,000. In 2016 $35,000. That’s almost 300 per cent increase over 30 years. Government tuition revenues have gone up 404 per cent since 2002 standing at $1.828 billion, slightly more than all the operating grants for the entire system! The last 30 years has simply replaced government funding with personal debt held by young people and their families.

In the last 1.5 years, two of our locals ran campaigns to highlight growing student debt. One student at Okanagan College had $89,000 in debt.

When the Faculty and Staff Association at the University of the Fraser Valley ran the same campaign, one student reported $169,000 in debt, with the average student debt triple the province-wide average at $90,000.

Forcing students into huge debt loads is no way to fund our post-secondary system.

This shift from government funding to private funding through high tuition fees has reshaped our public system. Now, a good number of our public post-secondary institutions have become mostly privately funded through tuition fees; institutions with revenues over $100 million (with some exceptions) have government operating grants in the 30-45 per cent range.

  • Langara College’s public funding is now only 30 per cent. That’s privatization.

  • Thompson Rivers Unversity receives only 39 per cent of its funding from public sources. That’s privatization.

  • Emily Carr University is small but has low government grant and high tuition – in fact, the government grant has dropped 10 per cent and tuition increased by the same amount. That’s privatization.

Smaller institutions receive from 55 – 66 per cent in government funding and their tuition revenues range from a high of 31 per cent (at Okanagan College) to 6.9 per cent at Northwest Community College. Sadly, the College of the Rockies has dropped below 50 per cent government funding for the first time.

Cash-strapped colleges and universities have struggled to make up the shortfall in other ways. What are those other ways? Privatized, for-profit education.

Much of the privatized for-profit education model in place across BC today relates to international education. Your work in raising this issue is commendable, as all students should be protected from shocking tuition fee increases, and education should be a right, not a commodity.

Thankfully, there is a new government in BC seeking to turn the page on the last government’s slash and burn approach to public education.

Since July we have seen some positive policy changes. Adult basic education and English language learning classes were once again made tuition-free. Free tuition was also implemented for former youth in care across all public post-secondary institutions in BC,  opening up a world of possibilities for many in our society who have already faced too many hardships.

These changes were much-needed, but there remain a host of problems to solve after decades of underfunding. We are committed to keeping up the pressure on the government to expand access and affordability. We are continuing our Open the Doors and Precarious Profs campaigns to talk about the impacts of underfunding on both halves of the learning equation: for students, high tuition fees and lack of choice, and for educators a rise in permanently temporary work as part-time sessionals.

We are examining developmental programs that still have tuition charged to support our ask that these programs be made tuition-free as well. We are beginning to undertake work on a significant project summarizing the changes in post-secondary funding over the past decade and a half, outlining the impacts of underfunding, and proposing solutions to these problems. Finally, we have also prepared a summary of the changes we would like to see to democratize BC post-secondary governance structures. We need to remove unconstitutional restrictions to the Boards of institutions that prevent faculty from having a seat the table. We’re also looking at developing further policy suggestions for the government as appropriate.

Challenges in post-secondary education are not restricted to BC. In Ontario, we saw the College Employers’ Council walk away from the bargaining table and force a strike that disrupted the academic year for tens of thousands of students and faculty. The faculty position was validated in the arbitrator’s decision, released last month, which adopted most of the faculty union’s positions, including enshrining academic freedom language into faculty collective agreements for the first time in Ontario.

While the impact of this process on Ontario students cannot be minimized, many of you may be considering an academic career yourselves, and I can personally attest to what a rich and fulfilling career it is. But it’ll be a different career than the one I’ve had. Technology was pretty primitive when I started: I used a 1917 Underwood typewriter from my grandparents when I was at university. As I travelled from place to place as a sessional while working on my thesis, I used mainframe computers with tape reels, or early word processors with 8-inch floppy disks. For years, an overhead projector was my chief classroom tool. Now technology is completely changing “flipped” classrooms, and learning is much more experiential. Regular, full-time instructors are going the way of the dodo, as too many post-secondary institutions employing part-time sessionals as permanently temporary employees without equal pay or benefits. If this pattern is allowed to continue to develop, what does that mean for the educators of tomorrow, including many of you? We need to look ahead to make sure we are doing all we can to improve the post-secondary system for students and faculty of today and tomorrow.

One way that we are doing this at FPSE is through our newest standing committee focused on decolonization, reconciliation and Indigenization of the post-secondary system in BC. It met for the first time in December, and has already brought forward many helpful suggestions and practices for our federation to decolonize our own structures, and I am sure they will grow to play an important role in all of our collective work to make post-secondary education a force for implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action.

Because that is the power of post-secondary education. Post-secondary education is a life-changing experience; everyone in our society should have access to places of learning that are also places of transformation.

Post-secondary is about more than memorizing facts – although I’m sure many of you had to do a lot of that for your end of semester exams.

It is about the profound change that is possible when people are exposed to new ideas, new people, and new ways of thinking.

It is about having breakthrough moments when a person understands a complex concept for the first time.

It is about rethinking how you perceive the world to appreciate the hidden advantages or disadvantages you experience on a daily basis, sometimes without noticing.

It is about strengthening your ability to speak truth to power, especially when it is not convenient to do so.

For all these reasons and more, post-secondary is not only becoming more and more necessary for reasons of employment, but also to be an informed and engaged citizen.

Our communities, regions, and our province are made stronger, more compassionate, and more interesting the more that people have the opportunity to access the power of post-secondary.

We are committed to increasing that access through our work, and to supporting organizations like the BCFS. We are stronger when we work together in solidarity, which is good as we have a lot to work on. Our federation looks forward to supporting BCFS’ new campaigns, and we would like to ask for your support as well.

Our Open the Doors campaign is still going, though not quite the level of a year ago. We took 25,000 names to Victoria last March – many of them your members – and we ask you to sign on to the campaign if you have not done so already at openthedoors.ca.

We are also asking for you to sign on to our Precarious Profs campaign to build support for equal pay for equal work for educators.

Thank you all so much for having me here today – it has been a pleasure and I look forward to working with you over the year ahead.