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REPORTING · 7th October 2010
Walter McFarlane
The Government Standing Committee on Finance met in Terrace on Wednesday, October 5th at the Best Western Inn and made dinner a priority. The last group to present were Danielle Branco and Mikael Jensen representing the Student Union of Northwest Community College and 1200 students. Their carefully prepared presentation couldn't interrupt the MLA's dinner.

“These are students from over six major centres including Terrace, Kitimat, Smithers, Houston, Hazelton and Prince Rupert," began Branco, "I will summarize four recommendations that we, the Student Union would recommend. Reduce tuition fees to 2001 levels. Establish and up-front provincial grants program. Eliminate the interest charged on BC student loans. Restore per-student funding to 2001 levels, accounting for inflation, and index future funding levels to inflation,”

She explained that affordability has been compromised in BC by increases to tuition fees resulting from funding cuts from the Provincial Government to Post Secondary Education which rose an average of over $5,000 per year for undergraduate students and $8,000 for a graduate student.

According to Branco, there were a record number of applications at Northwest Community College but there was a drop in the number of students who attended. The College did a study and found the majority of the students who applied were concerned about financial barriers. Other Colleges found the same information. Tuition fees at Northwest Community College are double what they were nine years ago.

“Statistics Canada has reported that those in the top income bracket are twice as likely to attend post-secondary education as those in the lowest income bracket. However, this accessibility gap is wider in rural communities, where wealthier Canadians are 5.6 times more likely to pursue higher education than their lower-income counterparts, and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal British Columbians,” said Branco

“About half of our members are First Nations. Tuition fee increases have eroded the ability for their bands to educate a similar number of their members compared to 2001. Higher tuition fees have eroded the Post Secondary Student Support Programs benefit to a point where the program don’t make enough funding to all potential students, and band councils are forced to make the difficult decision of whether they send a few students to school or whether they don’t send any. Ultimately, they are deciding who should go to college and who could not,” said Branco. “I thought Education was a right.”

She explained the costs were often justified with the benefits of post secondary education, but stated the benefits of a higher income (not very significant over a lifetime of wages) is also gained by the Government in a higher personal income tax bracket. She suggested a progressive tax would make the system work better than increased user fees.

She suggested the way to provide funding for post secondary education is a progressive tax where people with more money pay a higher percentage then lower incomes to fund Post Secondary Education.

“This system is necessary for the equitable well being of all members of society, yet is being eroded both provincially and federally through continuous tax cuts. The reduced fiscal capacity caused by tax cuts in the last number of years will eventually make it impossible for the provincial government to address the needs of its population,” concluded Branco.

She moved on to her second topic, grants. She explained when the BC government cut the provincial grants program in 2004, BC moved to last place in Canada in providing non-repayable student aid, 60% below the Canadian average. To make things worse, the provincial government cut Student Aid BC by $17 million in 2009.

“At present, student financial assistance in British Columbia is not adequately responsive to the ever increasing proportion of the costs of education that students are required to bear each and every semester. BC’s Loan Reduction program forgives approximately $72 million in student loan debt each year. While the Loan Reduction program focuses on helping students with debt management, it does nothing to help improve access for students who cannot afford the higher tuition fees in the first place,” said Branco.

She recommended loan remission and debt reduction programs. “NWCC students are deeply mired in debt created by a system of increasing tuition fees and meager student financial aid. NWCCSU recommends ending the debt sentence with a net framework for student aid that includes a grants program and zero interest on BC student loans.”

Moving on to topic three, the removal of interest, Branco explained student borrowers pay interest on their student loans at prime rate, 2.5%. A rate above the government’s cost of borrowing, 1%. She pointed out how Saskatchewan charges lower interest on the provincial portion of a loan and Newfoundland eliminated the interest all together because it was unfair to lower income families.

“Charging interest on student loans is unethical. In fact, forcing students to borrow to pay for their education creates a system where those who cannot afford to pay it now, end up paying more later, for the exact same thing they would have got originally, how fair is that?” asked Branco. “The annual impact of such a move would be negligible on the provincial treasury. It would only cost the provincial government $30 million dollars to eliminate the interest charged on student loans in BC.”

Students Then Were Cut off

Her final request was for the committee to restore funding to pre 2001 levels. As she started her conclusion, she was cut short. “You are out of time. I do have three members of the committee who would like to ask questions so we could take your conclusion as read,” said John Les, who was chairing the meeting. Several other MLA’s looked bored.

The first question came from Ms. Mungall who inquired about how many students used the student food bank as it was an indicator of poverty. Jensen explained the student union was rebuilding their financial aid structures and the food bank was run by the school itself. He promised to get the numbers.

Norm Letnick wished to correct some of the information they had given on the premiums of university training and wanted to know their source. John Von Dogen followed that up by asking about whether or not the college needed to be more focused on trades training as they have better pay scales. Jensen replied students were noticing they did not have the ability to participate in the decisions around ITA and ITA did not have student representation.

MLA McRae also wanted to know what the average tuition was and the programs the two were enrolled in. Branco is enrolled in the social Service worker Diploma Program. She paid $1,800 for 5 courses per semester, $1,200 for books, works full time and has three children. She has invested $20,000 and is only two and a half years in.

“Why should I have to pay more to be taxed harder to get less to give more to others,” concluded Branco.

The committee wrapped up to reconvene in Courtney BC the following day. Les commented the MLA’s could now go for supper.

Should the presentation have been cut short the way it had? Each of the presenters had been given 15 minutes to present. 10 minutes for the presentation and 5 minutes for questions and answers.

The students had been given the honour of speaking last and there was a period scheduled for an open mic. The open mic portion of the meeting was never called for. In addition, several of the other presenters had canceled. Originally, the meeting had been scheduled to run till 8 in the evening, it dismissed around 6:30. There was still plenty of time listen to the conclusion from the student union. In fact, one of their teachers, Cathay Sousa, had spoken over her limit as well and had been asked to keep it short.

We asked the students if they felt their presentation had been effective.

"Yes, but only to a point as the BC Government should know the issues, as they are responsible for the problems. The BC Liberal Government has decreased the funding levels for post-secondary education and the institutions across BC, and we can only assume that they know what they have done and how it has hurt students and the institutions. Our questions to them would be; do they care and are they going to do something about it; such as increase core funding levels?" said Jenson.

"Participating in the committee hearings is much more effective than saying nothing. Government needs to know what NWCC students think and what we suggest they do to alleviate both increasing tuition fees and ballooning student debt."

Below is their missing conclusion.


Conclusion

Increased tuition fees reflect the reductions in core funding from government to Northwest Community College. What has been observed by NWCC students is a shift away from the progressive taxation system to a system of user pay. Students have not only observed this shift in regards to paying for education in the form of increased tuition fees, but students see it in increases to the cost of Medical Services Plan and the recently introduced Harmonized Sales Tax.

This year, the BC government will collect more money through student tuition fees than from corporate income tax. Approximately $1.135 Billion (tuition fees) compared to $850 Million (corporate income taxes). Students recognize that business and corporations benefit from a highly skilled and trained workforce but see that the private sector is not pulling its weight.

Last month, the federal government released a report that said by the end of September, students across Canada would collectively have over $15 Billion in student debt, an amount that does not include the provincial portion and private debt, credit cards, etc. Student loans are 60% financed by the federal government and 40% by the provincial government. It is fair to say that $15 Billion dollars represents less than half of the Student debt in Canada. In BC average student debt upon graduation has ballooned to $27,000.

In the past eight years, the provincial government role in building a highly trained province has weakened, despite British Columbians placing a higher priority on access to post-secondary education and training. Tax cuts have characterized this governments approach to economic booms and economic slumps. Tax cuts are no solution for BC’s economic and social health, particularly when they come at the expense of social programs such as the provincial post-secondary education system.

BC now has the lowest corporate taxes in the country, along with some of the worst poverty rates and among the least affordable post-secondary education systems. Funding high-quality and affordable post-secondary education is one of the best investments the province can make in its economy, and must be treated as such.

NWCCSU members recognize why government has insufficient funds for post-secondary education as we know government has created the current budget shortfalls by reducing corporate taxes in BC by about one-third since 2001, from 16.5% to 10%.

NWCC students also recognize the current hypocrisy of government and its current mandate to increase fees and decrease core funding. Noting that previous generations, including many current MLAs, benefited from a highly subsidized post-secondary education system; our members are looking for nothing more than what was available to previous generations of BC students.

It is not a question of who should pay for post-secondary education in the province of BC but a question of when we should pay. The cost for post-secondary education should be paid for after it has been achieved and income is being earned by students and government, by way of the progressive taxation system and not up-front through a system of user fees.

Danielle Branco and Mikael Jensen representing the Student Union of Northwest Community College and 1200 students
Danielle Branco and Mikael Jensen representing the Student Union of Northwest Community College and 1200 students
Two instructors who delivered presentations at the Finance committee hearings
Two instructors who delivered presentations at the Finance committee hearings