Adult basic education – tuition-free high school level courses – can open up a wide range of possibilities for single parents, older workers laid off from resource industries, new immigrants and younger people who could not complete high school. Adult basic education is essential for people to qualify for skills and trades programs, access post-secondary education and find a career that pays a living wage.
Unfortunately, access to adult basic education in BC has been significantly eroded over the years, and recent changes by the BC government may well be the final nail in the coffin.
In December, the government reversed their policy to offer free basic education to adults. Starting January 1 of this year, colleges and universities are able to charge tuition for high school level classes. On May 1, school districts will no longer be able to offer basic education courses to students who have graduated from high school but need to upgrade their marks or take courses for further study or work.
Vancouver Community College has announced that tuition for adult basic education and English Second Language will be $1,600 per term. This is as much as SFU and UBC charge for some of their Masters’ and Doctoral level programs.
The BC government has defended the change as fair, but a closer look at their claims reveals serious reasons for concern.
Government claim: Graduated adults have already benefited from public K-12 education. If they choose to return to school to upgrade their qualifications they should be expected to pay tuition, and can probably afford it.
Reality: The vast majority of basic education students are low-income earners who enroll because their high school marks or courses do not qualify them for entry into trades or other college and university programs. John* was laid off from his job near Quesnel last year, after 25 years of steady employment. Now in his mid-40s, assessments place his reading level at Grade 9 and his math skills at Grade 10. To gain access to a trades program and to employment, John will need at least one and a half years of basic education courses to pass the English 12 and Math 11 requirements, and he cannot afford tuition.
The new tuition policy will be particularly hard on Aboriginal British Columbians, because many Aboriginal communities are served by school districts that do not offer basic education. Aboriginal people are also less likely to have Internet access for online learning. Charging tuition seems counter to the spirit of the government’s 2012 commitment to improving access for Aboriginal students.
Government claim: The new Adult Upgrading Grant will address the concerns of low-income students.
Reality: Many students who can’t afford the tuition will not qualify for the grant. The grant starts getting clawed back at pre-tax income of $23,647 for a single adult and $29,439 for a single parent with one child, thresholds that are below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-Off before tax for Vancouver.
Lea*, a single parent, earns $33,000 per year as a homecare worker. She hopes to become a nurse practitioner but needs to take the chemistry, math and biology classes she did not take when she was in high school five years ago. She will not qualify for the government grant. Thousands of basic education students are in the same situation.
Government claim: We can’t afford to continue providing tuition-free basic education for adults.
Reality: The funding cuts announced in December will save the province $15.9 million per year. To say that $15.9 million cannot be found for basic education is simply not credible with a surplus of $900 million for 2014 and large surpluses for the next three years. The one-time reinstatement of $6.9 million as transition funding for 2015/16 is a short-term fix.
When the government introduced free tuition under the Education Guarantee in 2008, it was in recognition of its vital social and economic role. Enrolment increased dramatically, revealing strong demand. In a province with some of the highest levels of poverty and inequality in Canada, slamming the door on access to basic education is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. If the government is serious about better aligning “skills for jobs” in the province, it must start by making basic education tuition-free for all British Columbians who want to a better life.
* John and Lea are not their real names, but they are real people we have encountered in our research. They are just two examples of British Columbians who will not be able to access basic education under the new policy.
Suzanne Smythe is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education at SFU. Shauna Butterwick is Associate Professor at the Department of Educational Studies at UBC and a Research Associates with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.