The second day of the roll out of the Premier’s jobs agenda was marked by a single announcement made at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. The focus of this piece of the jobs puzzle was ramping up international education and regional skills training.
The idea of leveraging education, especially post-secondary education, to boost the economy is in itself a good one. Education is a policy area where strategic investment made today can produce large benefits down the road in the form of better educated, more innovative and adaptable citizens, who can be the engine of the economy of the future.
However, the B.C. post-secondary education system is stretched thin after a decade of mandated enrollment increases that were not accompanied by sufficient funding to properly educate and support these new students. As a result, many of our programs are underfunded and university leaders have started to acknowledge that:
The quality of undergraduate education at Canada’s universities is eroding, even as the price of earning a degree rises steadily, leaving students more anxious about their prospects after graduating.
The Ministry of Advanced education already has a service plan outlining goals and challenges for education policy in B.C. It identifies several important challenges to be addressed, including the need to:
— provide high quality education choices that are affordable and accessible to address the fact that 77 per cent of job openings over the 10-year period 2009-2019 are expected to require some form of post secondary education while only 60 per cent of the B.C. population has this level of education.
— provide education and training opportunities in areas that address B.C.’s future workforce needs
— increase the participation of Aboriginal People & other under-represented groups
Focusing on these key challenges is what would strengthen the B.C. education system and provide jobs now and in the future.
The Premier’s announcement of regional workforce tables and bringing training closer to where British Columbians live and work makes some sense within this framework, though arguably is neither new nor very well funded.
But instead of focusing funding to remedy the declining quality and increasing lack of affordability & accessibility of education in B.C., the Premier plans to increase the number of international students in post-secondary institutions by 50 per cent over just four years.
It’s hard to see expanding international student enrollment as a top priority at this stage, before we have addressed the eroding affordability and quality of education (after years of underfunding teaching), and got a handle on how we can enable all British Columbians, particularly Aboriginal people and other underrepresented groups, to realize their full potential.
And what the Premier is proposing is a huge increase, close to 20,000 more students every year (it is estimated that there are 39,000 international students in the B.C. post-secondary system). That’s 10 per cent of the total projected spaces in public post-secondary institutions in 2013/14 (202,114 according to the Ministry of Advanced Education Annual Service Plan).
It is not clear whether the Premier is proposing to increase enrollment by 10 per cent over this year’s service plan or whether the international students would take spaces that would otherwise go to Canadian students.
Either way, it’s hard to read the government’s press release and not end up feeling like they’re treating international students as a revenue generator (aka cash cow). Yes, international students pay higher tuition fees and spend money in the local economy, but it is not reasonable to rely on international tuition to make up funding shortfalls in college/university budgets.
Bringing in international students will benefit B.C. and Canada in the long run. However, we need to make sure that we have the resources to offer them good quality education and that the international students that we do attract are prepared to learn.
Far too many international students are already enrolled in local colleges and universities without having the necessary English-language skills to learn well. Anybody who has recently been in college or university has seen that. Ask any post-secondary instructor, and they will readily share frustrating stories of otherwise intelligent students in their classes with such severe English language difficulties that they were having trouble understanding much of the material. Even if they manage to get a diploma, these students end up receiving a very poor education.
It hardly makes sense to focus on growing the number of our international students without providing proper educational supports for them. And I didn’t see anything in this announcement about that.
In the short term, it is a lot easier to attract well-educated and wealthy international students (and hope they decide to stay in B.C. after they graduate) than to deal with the thorny domestic issues of education affordability, quality and underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups. But it takes a government that’s forward looking to recognize that tackling these problems head on is what will set us on the right path to prepare for the skills & knowledge demands of the future.
This article first appeared in Policy Note.