Public education in British Columbia is struggling against a thickening neoliberal framework.

The deterioration of public education is not unique to the region, but to use it as a model paints a rather bleak picture.

In 2014, the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation clashed with the B.C. Liberals who had twice appealed a Supreme Court ruling on class size regulation, and would not provisionally fund education while their second appeal was being completed. The school year began three weeks late.

The Liberals had already been found guilty of “provoking a strike,” by a Supreme Court judge.

Moving beyond the BCTF, there have now been strikes at the University of Northern British Columbia and Capilano University, as well as overwhelming votes in favour of job action at Langara College and the British Columbia Institute of Technology if deals are not attainable.

So, what has happened? For former Vancouver School Board Chair and one Director of the Broadbent Institute, Patti Bacchus, “we’ve had a government called the B.C. Liberal government, which is really quite a conservative government, and they have really been hard on public education, and post-secondary.”

The current VSB Trustee said, “They have been pretty much at war with the teachers.”

According to Bacchus, B.C. has the second-lowest public funding per student in the country, after only Prince Edward Island.

Without supporting administrations’ decisions around financial allocation, it is important to uncover what is producing the somber circumstance.

For Iglika Ivanova, a Senior Economist at Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the situation has been produced by public education funding not keeping pace with inflation rates — and for advanced education, it’s just hanging on. In real terms, funding for education has decreased in the province.

She emphasized: “Even though wages aren’t growing very fast and the labour market conditions are still pretty terrible…The economy is actually growing. When you measure the total dollar value of goods and services produced, the GDP, it’s growing. The fact is, it’s a huge problem that economic growth is not translating into an improvement of life quality for people or better services.”

According to Bacchus, the government injected an additional $30 million of public money to the private education sector this year.

The school-to-pipeline pipeline.

Bacchus is weary of the B.C. Liberals pushing trades, particularly trades aimed at the shale gas industry, on students within the public education system.

She finds hypocrisies in the fact that the Premier and many other government representatives have placed their students in private schools whose mandate is to prepare students for university.

“We’re re-engineering public schools to supply a workforce to industry,” said Bacchus.

Alternative Education

The public education system in B.C. is far from perfect. About 16 per cent of students never graduate high school. Of the 84 per cent who do, we could assume that some do so despite the system, not because of it. It fails countless Indigenous students.

If a system fails so many of people who pass through it, is it broken?

Part of the answer to that question can be found with rare places like Windsor House in Vancouver, a school recognized for its radical democracy and breaking down of the adult-child hierarchy. Unlike most alternative schools, Windsor House is free for students who are not served by typical schools.

That’s because it’s a public school.

Other schools have alternative programs to battle poor educational experience.

Bacchus said a privatized system “can’t provide the range of options that a well-funded public education system can.” For her, it is difficult to maintain alternative programs with the funding they have, but she believes they do a good job given their position.

It’s difficult to see building beyond these structures when we can hardly fill them as they are.

Ivanova pointed out that the first things to go, even within traditional schools, are the arts, music and so-called “special” programs. She said it’s important to measure the outcome based on more than just the service itself, because the outcomes are dependent on many other things — like poverty.

B.C. has consistently ranked poorly amongst provinces in child poverty rates since the turn of the millennium.

Other experiential, but privatized schools like Waldorf and Kenneth Gordon Maplewood, can cost in the ballpark of $15,000-22,000 per year.

Elitism of the University

Unlike grade school, there are few students who can get away without tuition costs for post-secondary. The costs of living and being unable to work full-time jobs without trading off classroom success combines for a daunting, if not impossible challenge for low-income people.

Nevermind the burden of stress associated with debt. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, the average degree holder in B.C. finishes with $35,000 of it, $8,000 above the national average.

But, diversity in attendance is not where the elitism ends. Colleges and universities also play a role in concentrating “worthy” knowledge to the few.

For the most part, a narrow field of people can become faculty members in advanced education. You likely need at least a decade of formal university training, for example. Things like traditional Indigenous knowledge, motherhood and other informally developed knowledge are often overlooked.

Yet, like public education, post-secondary institutions are more likely to break outside of that structure if they are in a healthy financial state, not if they are struggling.

A Defense of the University: A Place of Healing 

In dim restaurant dining rooms, a young Si Transken waited tables to make ends meet after leaving home and dropping out of school in ninth grade. Now a tenured UNBC professor with a PhD, Transken called her story “a very common one among young people from disturbed families and materially poor families,” but often with a different ending. For Transken, had their not been “moments of hope” found in accessible “multiple one session stop ins with unemployment counselors, academic counselors, sexual abuse counselors,” her life could have easily ended up as one of “drugs and squalor”, or worse.

Transken fears the diminishing access of caring services in educational spaces, especially after seeing 37 women’s resource centers lose their provincial funding in 2004.

Edward Quinlan “extensively” accessed UNBC’s counseling services; he would be there every week, both as part of an anxiety recovery group — with 10-12 others — and for cognitive therapy.

Quinlan, 28, is about to finish his undergraduate studies at UNBC with a degree title that would take up half this page. After a deep depressive episode that lasted nearly three years, combined with stifling anxiety, followed by two years of recovery, he can now stride on stage and give confident speeches to 200 person audiences, as he did at a pro-faculty rally in Prince George. 

Quinlan describes his journey of one from days spent dry heaving, barely hanging onto his job, abandoning class, not leaving his house for five days at a time to being able to graduate, give speeches and act in theatre productions.

These stories ring with special importance at the moment: the College of New Caledonia is set to cut counselling services, UNBC’s Community Care Centre will be shuttered by June, 2015 and care services are generally one of the first to feel the brunt of austerity measures.

In the rhetoric of advanced education funding, there is much lost in the spaces between academic cuts. A healthy campus can be as much a space for personal growth as it is a degree factory.

For Quinlan, “it’s like four years of accelerated of figure-your-shit-out.” With plans to lead future anxiety groups — inspired by the counseling services on campus — Quinlan is embodied proof of that.

Strengthening Education

Education in B.C. is facing three major tenets of neoliberalism — deregulation, deprofessionalization and privatization (or defunding) — and in stature it is more the David than the Goliath, but at least that leaves hope.

To defend public education is not inevitably to defend it as it is.

To build a better education system means to fight against austerity, it means more funding not less and not driving the system to collapse — or to privatization. Better funding can create space for experimentation.

Ivanova described how underfunding at Simon Fraser University led to inadequate residential maintenance, then to an entire building being shut down and its residents evicted.

Is this a reflection of the path education is headed?

At this time, UNBC is set to be the first post-secondary faculty in B.C. history to go through binding arbitration. Onlookers see it as precedent setting for similar debates that are destined to arise in the current turbulence.

For the UNBC Faculty Association, it’s as personal as it is groundbreaking. UNBC is a young university that has been fast to rise in the ranks, but if faculty retention continues to interfere with high quality research, it could free fall.

And if the decision sides against the UNBC FA, public education is going to have an even harder time breaking out of its neoliberal cage.



(Disclosure: Si Transken is a former professor of the writer’s).

Tyson Kelsall is a settler of colour, living on occupied xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ territory. Kelsall’s writing has also appeared in Adbusters, RankandFile.ca, the Vancouver Observer, Victoria’s Times Colonist, Canada University Press and OccupyWallSt.org. Follow him online @TysonKelsall.

Image: Flickr/Quinnanya