CUPE Local 2409, which represents faculty at Northwest Community College in Terrace, has launched a B.C. Supreme Court action against the college's board of governors for what the union claims is the failure of the board to discuss programming changes with the college's education council.
The union says the board has repeatedly violated Section 23 of the Colleges and Institutes Act by leaving the council out of those discussions, which date back to January.
"It's very clear under the Act that when the administrators consider changing the program mix at a college they must consult with the education council," said Cindy Oliver, president of the B.C. Federation of Post Secondary Educators.
"We don't want to do this but it's our only choice. We have faith that the court will sort it out. What we ultimately want to do is sit down with the employer and have them follow the proper protocol. Education councils at colleges in our province are legislated to look after the academic programming in the institution and they have to be consulted."
NWCC president Denise Henning said the college should have the right to cut courses which fail to meet minimum levels of enrollment and states the union was adequately consulted during its budgeting process over the winter about courses that would not be offered this fall.
"Common sense dictates that if there aren't enough people enrolled the college could lose money if we continue offering courses without a minimum amount of enrolled students," said Henning.
"We didn't cancel courses and we didn't cancel programs. We did have a number of courses we could not offer this semester when we looked at our whole deficit mitigation process we've been involved in since January. The decisions we had to make, we consulted with all relevant stakeholders when we needed to take action on a number of courses with the academic plan. I respect the right of the union to make the claim that they are and we will internally pursue the relevant course of action."
The college has until Sept. 6 to respond to the legal action.
Henning said students coming to NWCC campuses this fall should not feel threatened the legal action will in any way hinder the quality of their educational programming. But Oliver said 30 NWCC part-time and contract faculty members were laid off this summer and there have been noticeable reductions in programming as a result.
"In university transfer arts and sciences I know some science labs have been cut and some biology and computer programs, and there are some very specific First Nations programming that looks like it's not to be going ahead," said Oliver.
Oliver said a similar legal action was taken in 2005, which resulted in the education council of Vancouver Community College winning its Supreme Court challenge over the college's board for its plans to cut courses without consultation.
In February, the education council took issue over the method the college board used to inform faculty of layoffs, which resulted in an informal hearing with the B.C. Labour Relations Board. That matter was settled under the union's collective agreement with the college.
"They had to rescind those [layoffs] and follow proper protocol," said Oliver.
Based in Terrace, NWCC has six other regional campuses in an area that stretches from Smithers to Haida Gwaii to serve a huge sparsely-populated geographic area. As with other B.C. colleges and universities, courses which fail to meet minimum enrollment thresholds are the first to be cut, but Oliver says low enrollment is no excuse for reducing the programming options for students.
"The real problem stems from the provincial government not funding our public post-secondary institutions properly," said Oliver. "There has been a reduction of per-student funding of about nine per cent since 2002. Government has increased some targeted capital spending, but they kind of forgot to put funding forward to get students into those buildings. That's really unfortunate because we all know you can't get a decent job without having some kind of post-secondary education.
"Students need to be able to get their prerequisites and follow-up courses so they can complete their line of study, and when you start chopping away at courses you leave them less opportunity. "Not everybody wants to leave their community and go down to a large urban centre on the coast. [Keeping students in their home communities] is how you build a province, instead of dragging people out."