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Student rally planned for MLA office

As UNBC's strike pushes into the third week, a number of student groups have turned their anger to the provincial government, arguing the post-secondary system is underfunded.

As UNBC's strike pushes into the third week, a number of student groups have turned their anger to the provincial government, arguing the post-secondary system is underfunded.

A group of students supporting the faculty has planned a rally in front of MLA Shirley Bond's office Friday at 11 a.m.

The goal is to send a message to government, said rally organizer James Mangan.

"We believe that we should be encouraging government to make education in British Columbia a larger priority," said Mangan, in his fifth year at UNBC. "The current government isn't really treating education as the priority that we feel it should be."

According to the ministry's numbers, it gave UNBC $46.7 million in annual operating grants for this school year. The university has said government funding represent 67 per cent of its operating budget, a number that declined this year by $572,000. UNBC enrolment, too, has declined by 5.9 per cent, and according to the government, the university is operating at only 82 per cent capacity.

This week the Graduate Students' Society sent a letter to Andrew Wilkinson, B.C.'s Advanced Education Minister, criticizing what it called a lack of support for northern B.C. institutions.

"I feel like public education in general is really lacking funding," said Jessy Rajan, graduate society president. "We're in a province where we had two strikes within a year: one with (the BC Teachers' Federation) and one with one of the four largest universities in B.C.

"We're not asking (Wilkinson) to intervene. We're asking him to acknowledge the situation and moving forward B.C. Liberals need do something about the state of public education."

Neither group is likely to get the desired response.

"We have full confidence in (UNBC) president Daniel Weeks and we're hoping this comes to an amicable resolution very shortly," said Wilkinson Wednesday morning. "It's not our job to go and mess around with 25 different institutions. We respect their autonomy."

As for post-secondary funding, Wilkinson said it's sufficient, pointing to an increase of $91 million to the portfolio in the next two years.

The government is also asking institutions to cut costs by $50 million in areas of purchasing and procurement for things like natural gas and data storage.

"We think we're in pretty much the right spot in terms of the funding envelope for the post-secondary sector. It's always nice to have more money for more amenities or more research work at a university or a smaller class size, but we do try to find that balance between what's affordable and what's desirable."

NDP opposition critic Kathy Corrigan called the approach short-sighted

"You end up with decisions being made not on the basis of what is appropriate in terms of providing programs and education, you're getting decisions being made on the basis solely of the bottom line," said Corrigan, also in reference to the College of New Caledonia's recent announcement it plans to suspend the dental programs to help counter a $2.8 million deficit.

This school year the government gave CNC $28.9 million.

"The funding that they're getting means that there have to be cuts so all of these things - courses being closed, strikes - they're all to do with not enough funding going into the system," she said, adding overall funding has not kept up with inflation. "It's actually declined over the last couple of years."

Wilkinson countered that inflation varies from institution to institution.

"Some of them will be running higher inflation rates and some of them will be running lower inflation rates so bunching them together is a bit of mixing apples and oranges."

Neither CNC or UNBC are operating at capacity. According to the ministry's numbers, CNC sits at 64 per cent compared to UNBC's 82 per cent.

With a strong economy in north central B.C., and the unemployment rate at 4.4 per cent, Wilkinson said potential students may choose work over school.

Government supports institutions, but must do so based on enrolment, he said.

"We realize they have some fixed costs but we can't continue to fund them as if they're at 100 percent utilization when it's actually down to 60 per cent range," said Wilkinson, in reference to CNC's situation.

But Corrigan sees underfunding as part and parcel of low enrolment numbers.

"Access is becoming more and more difficult and I do think it plays out more in more rural areas of the province."

Corrigan said the government is complicit in some of the institution's rising costs - referencing Hydro and MSP, which are government controlled.

For third-year student David Clarkson, who is planning to attend Friday's rally, the current situation should come as no surprise to students.

"This isn't news to us. We're the only province without, for instance, a needs-based grants program. We're the province with highest interest on student loans" said Clarkson, calling the strike a direct result from a "horribly underfunded" system.

"No one really got upset about that and now all of a sudden everyone is upset because of the consequences that inevitably follow from that."