Way back in 2004, the BC Liberals ambitiously promised to create 25,000 new student spaces in colleges and universities by 2010. Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell has recently stated that this projection has shot up to 32,000. More student seats means that more students will be able to attend post-secondary in BC. This is a good thing.
So how are we doing so far? In order to answer that, it’s first important to realize that a student seat isn’t actually a student. When the government says they want to increase student seats, they actually mean they want to increase FTEs (full-time equivalents). One FTE is equal to 60 per cent of a full course load. So, a student studying with a full-course load is counted as 1.4 FTEs and a student studying with a 30% course load is counted as 0.5 FTEs. This FTE business is used partially so that full-time students don’t get lumped in with part-time students. The reason the government doesn’t want to lump them together is that government funding is based on FTE. The higher an institution’s FTE, the more funding they get.
The auditor general has released a report documenting the progress of the first two years (2004/2005 and 2005/2006) of the 25,000 student seat increase promise. The target for those years was the creation of 7,417 new seats. Only 4,004 were filled. In fact, only 6 of the 26 post-secondary institutions in the province met their targets.
There are also a number of problems with how the number of 25,000 was determined. It was solely based on future population forecasts for BC and included no consultation whatsoever with the institutions themselves. If you’re going to set targets to increase the number of seats at post-secondary institutions, it just seems plain obvious that you would ask those institutions what their expected enrolment figures will be. Another problem is that each FTE is worth $7,200 in funding from the province. This flat figure does not take into account the cost of different programs at different institutions and also importantly does not account for inflation. $7,200 in 2004 is not worth $7,200 in 2010.
The broader premise of funding institutions based on FTEs also has complications. Those small, interactive courses that we all love are not encouraged under this model. For a post-secondary institution, it is most advantageous to cram as many students into a class as possible. They are also encouraged to focus more heavily on programs that maximize FTEs, rather than programs that stimulate a high standard of learning.
We should also ask: why is the Province not meeting its target of increasing the number of student seats? Well, the creation of these spaces is predicated on the belief that there is sufficient demand to fill these spaces. It has been shown, for a number of reasons, that there isn’t. A student’s decision on whether or not to attend a post-secondary institution is not primarily dictated by whether or not there is an open spot in the program, but rather by tuition costs, the student’s or their family’s financial resources, the education level of the student’s parents, and how close the student lives to a post-secondary institution that meets their needs (See StatsCan report).
The 25,000 space goal is a good one, but it’s not being supported. If we are to reach it, the Province will first need to take a long hard look at the issues of accessibility to post-secondary. Perhaps Campus 2020 will provide some insight.