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BC NDP critics talk advanced education, student debt, stress, and skills training

Michelle Mungall and Gwen O’Mahony are both members of the BC NDP; Mungall serves as the Advanced Education critic, and O’Mahony serves as the Skills Training critic. They are currently on a cross-provincial tour of BC post-secondary institutions, and stopped by UFV last week to chat with The Cascade.

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By Joe Johnson (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: September 12, 2012

Michelle Mungall and Gwen O’Mahony are both members of the BC NDP; Mungall serves as the Advanced Education critic, and O’Mahony serves as the Skills Training critic. They are currently on a cross-provincial tour of BC post-secondary institutions, and stopped by UFV last week to chat with The Cascade.

You both have positions as critics within the BC NDP, Michelle as the Advanced Education critic and Gwen as the Skills Training critic. Can you tell me what these roles are in regards to the specific ministries?

Michelle Mungall: For myself, John Yap’s just been newly appointed the Minister of Advanced Education, so his duties around Advanced Education are what I focus mostly on.

We’re talking about the funding to post-secondary institutions, tuition fees, and the big one on a lot of students’ mind is student debt and affordability of post-secondary institutions.

That’s the focus that I’ve been tasked with and have been doing for the last year-and-a-half or so, and Gwen, being new, was given a new role out of that.

Gwen O’Mahony: Yes, which is skills training. It’s specific to any kind of training affiliated with the industry and post-secondary institutions, so there’s a link [with Mungall’s focus].

What we’re really focusing on is completion rates for apprenticeships; the fact that we have a growing skills shortage in this province and how we’re going to address that need.

We know that in the next five to 10 years, 80 per cent of all jobs are going to require some form of post-secondary education, and we know that receiving appropriate training is essential.

Right now our province is lagging. We have a 34 per cent completion rate in apprenticeships, so it’s a really serious issue.

What has your encounter with UFV students been like?

MM: It’s been great. It was really great, a really great opportunity to talk with students.

One young man was telling us how this is his first year taking out a student loan. He took out $5000, and that’s the start of his student debt, and he’s looking at having to possibly go to Alberta for a job as a teacher because those jobs are not available here in British Columbia.

Another young man was saying something along similar lines. Both of them want to stay in British Columbia, both of them want to stay in their communities. But the options available to them are just not there.

Another young man was telling us how he just graduated high school and he’s starting his post-secondary career at UFV in Chilliwack. What he really liked about it is he could still stay at home and go to school. And so the fact that UFV provides that to students is really wonderful.

Gwen, with UFV’s Trades and Technology Centre in your riding, has the need for increased skills training been a strong issue?

GO: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s going to be essential to the campaign because it’s an issue that affects our economy.

We’re looking at a time in history where economic development could be stifled by a lack of what’s known as human capital versus financial capital; in other words, by not having enough skilled workers to fill those jobs.

MM: And as Gwen has pointed out, 80 per cent of jobs in the next decade are going to require some level of post-secondary education. Completion rates for apprenticeships are one of the lowest in the country; we’re at 36 per cent, Alberta’s at 70 per cent.

It’s not just about the oil sands and so on – there are other factors. The fact that Alberta’s putting a lot of effort into their skills training is one of them. For BC it’s been an area of—I would say—neglect over the last 10 years and while [the liberals] opened new training spaces, what they didn’t do was ensure people could complete.

That’s the key, that’s the ticket. Literally the ticket, people have to have their ticket to work in their field, especially in the trades.

GO: My prediction is skills training; it’s going to be essential in the next campaign for both parties to talk about what they’re going to do. Because it is one of our top issues – a top economic issue.

Michelle, you’ve been sitting with the NDP for three years now. In that time have you noticed a change to the problems facing students in achieving a post-secondary education?

MM: I’d say in the last three years—and you can even compare it to five years, or 10 years ago—the increasing cost of post-secondary education has left people with huge debts. They have to go back to school if they’re going to be employable. Period.

But they’re not completing in the same timeframe as previous generations were. Instead of doing a four year degree in four years, people are doing a four year degree in five or six years, and that’s happening more and more. Instead of finishing a 10 month program in 10 months, people are going to do five months and then they’re going to come back at another time and do the other five months.

It all boils down to finances. When students are paying double the tuition that Christy Clark did when she went to SFU, they’re paying the highest interest rate on those student loans and they have absolutely no access to financial needs based grants. They’re not only working part-time, they’re working full-time.

One young man we talked to today, he’s working two part-time jobs just so he can go to school. And that financial stress is actually the number one stress point for students, in national studies. It’s not if you’re going to pass the midterm or not any more, it’s whether you’re going to pay the rent.

Institutions themselves are having problems financially. We’ve seen cutbacks here at UFV. Is there a concrete plan towards institutional core funding?

MM: What we have from the Liberals since 2005 is stagnant funding. They haven’t addressed the increasing costs that institutions have with staff increases, or pay increases. BC Hydro rates going up, the provincial government sets those, they know they’re going up; MSP premiums going up for benefits packages, for staff, right? Again, provincial government sets those; they know they’re going up and yet they have not been giving institutions any funding to address those increased costs.

So we have stagnant funding which, in the end, is a systemic cutback of funding. Systemically, institutions have experienced a nine per cent cutback since 2005, and for the 2013/14 budget and 2014/15 budget, a total of $50 million is going to be cut from post-secondary institutions.

They’re not even getting stagnant funding anymore; they’re getting a full-on rollback in their funding. And Liberal government keeps saying, “Oh, this won’t impact students.”

Well, we know that there’s clear evidence that when tuition goes up it impacts students. And tuition has been going up at the same rate as funding has been [stalled] by the Liberals, so it’s impacting students.

With the upcoming cuts, all 25 presidents of post-secondary institutions [in BC] wrote a letter to the Minister telling her that these cuts were unrealistic. Two months later they got an answer back from her deputy minister saying, “That’s just too bad, we’re going to do it anyway.”

That’s where we’re at under the Liberals.

The Where’s The Funding? student-led BC lobby group recently began a new campaign asking students to pledge their vote in the upcoming provincial election for the political party that best represents student needs. What’s your take on this particular campaign?

MM: If young people don’t get out to vote, their voice doesn’t get heard. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

GO: I think it’s brilliant. We’re looking at a time when political engagement is at an all-time low, and I think it’s brilliant. It’s a brilliant way to actually bring politics into the personal, which is what really it takes to get people to come out to the polls. I really hope that students will look at all the platforms, make an informed decision, and get out there and vote on Election Day [on May 14, 2013].

MM: And on that note, the NDP is the only party to date to offer a $100-million to financial needs based grants.

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