Gov’t buys a year’s peace with college over changes to high school equivalency courses

The provincial government announced Friday that it would give NWCC a one-time allocation of $494,000 for adult basic education programs

The board at Northwest Community College in Terrace

Northwest Community College (NWCC) has been given a reprieve of one year to figure out how to deal with changes to how it offers high school equivalency courses.

The provincial government announced Friday that it would give NWCC a one-time allocation of $494,000 for adult basic education (ABE) programs in 2015/2016, part of $6.9 million to be distributed to colleges around the province.

That’s the amount the college was set to lose from its operating grant when the ministry of advanced education announced late last year that colleges and universities will no longer receive provincial money to provide ABE classes tuition-free.

Instead, beginning Jan. 1, 2015, colleges and universities could charge tuition fees for the courses.

And low-income students could then apply for provincial grants to cover all or part of that tuition and other costs.

Colleges and universities, as well as students’ unions, pushed back at the move, saying that tuition-free ABE classes removed a significant barrier to education and was a critical step toward further post-secondary learning opportunities.

“ABE is the gateway for thousands of B.C. students looking to take trades, nursing or business education,” said Steve Verblac, chairperson of NWCC’s students’ union in a Feb. 3 release addressing the program changes. “Cutting ABE funding and applying fees to high school courses will reduce the accessibility of this most important program. If this government is serious about providing more trained trades people, they would ensure ABE remains free.”

NWCC communications director Sarah Zimmerman said earlier this month that the college did not anticipate it would be able to recoup the expected reduction in its operating grant through charging tuition and was still assessing what dealing with student grant applications might mean to its costs.

“However, with increased administration comes the potential for increased administrative costs,” she said.

And should the new program cut student numbers, the college would also have to examine what that means for its budget, she said.

Thanks to the money received, the college will spend the next year doing just that.

“Northwest Community College is grateful to receive this funding this year,” said Zimmerman Friday following the government announcement. “This will be a transitional year for the ABE program as Northwest Community College addresses potential revenue and/or enrolment changes due to program restructuring.”

She said the college is continuing to work with the province on this issue.

But NWCC students’ union organizer Mikael Jensen said the transitional year doesn’t do anything to address the core issue.

“Governments looking to eliminate core funding is always a concern, this year or next year,” he said. “The problem from the get go was as much the cut, as it was the new delivery model. This program was already devastated in last year’s budget; NWCC lost 55 per cent of the faculty in the department and the delivery model was changed to at your own pace from instructor led. This has not supported students or helped with success. The fact remains that while high school success rates are low this program will need more funding, and not less.”

When the changes were announced, education minister Peter Fassbender issued a statement that said, “High school is free, but further upgrading is not. I think it is reasonable to expect adults who’ve already graduated to contribute to these costs.”

The changes to ABE funding affect adult students who have graduated high school and are looking to upgrade. Adult students who have not graduated high school can access the courses through the K-12 system, continued the government statement.