Victoria holds all the cards

Almost everyone except for members of the Liberal government and their most ardent supporters can agree that, in comparison to most other provinces in Canada, B.C. underfunds education across the board, from kindergarten right through to university doctoral programs.

Whether underfunding education is a smart fiscal move that mortgages the future success of this province and its citizens is debatable but the dollars speak for themselves. This was an intentional move. The Liberals are proud that their increases in spending on education and health have been below the national average for many years. They are correct to state that annual spending increases of six to seven per cent seen elsewhere are unsustainable, in both the short and long term.

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Locally, underfunding means CNC is facing a $2.8 million operating deficit and looking at layoffs and the suspension or cancellation of several programs. College management aren't taking action to upset students and faculty. Rather, they are reacting to provincial funding levels and a decree that post-secondary institutions can only raise tuition by two per cent each year, regardless of what the real-world costs to offer programs and pay faculty are.

With some variances, the provincial government basically pays for education on a per-student ratio, regardless of whether it's an elementary school or a university. When the population of school-aged children in Prince George and area crashed 10 years ago, school board trustees were forced to make agonizing decisions to cut staff, close some schools and amalgamate others.

What was School District 57's problem a decade ago has now arrived at CNC and UNBC, since those same children have now graduated or can see it that day on the near horizon. Regardless of the careful penny-pinching done by CNC's new president Henry Reiser and UNBC's new president Daniel Weeks, they are looking at fewer and fewer students from the region in coming years, meaning less and less money from the province.

Employing the same number of faculty to offer the same number of programs and classes to a decreasing student base is as financially impossible at CNC and UNBC in 2015 as it was for School District 57 in 2005.

Tuesday's story about layoffs coming to CNC this year is the beginning, not the end, of similar choices ahead for the college.

Meanwhile, up at UNBC, faculty have taken to the picket line to prevent the inevitable. If public school teachers striking across B.C. last year couldn't force the Liberals to bend, what makes UNBC professors think they can bring the same decision-makers in Victoria to heel? They can't and they won't, because the deal struck here will be the deal passed on to faculty at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University, who are next in line for contract renewals.

Even if UNBC and CNC faculty were to completely roll over and agree to everything brought down the pipe by the Weeks and Reiser administrations, professors are still going to lose their jobs and programs are going to be terminated or mothballed due to dwindling student enrolment.

The UNBC faculty are making a big deal about that number two ranking from Macleans magazine for best small university in Canada but that ranking gives credit for small class sizes as if it's a benefit, when it's really a hindrance. It's certainly good for students and it's great for professors (fewer papers to mark) but it masks the reality that there are simply too many staff serving too few customers.

UNBC faculty are underpaid compared to their colleagues at similar-sized institutions in other provinces but they are also teaching fewer classes with fewer students in those classes in a province that doesn't spend as much per student as other provinces.

The Liberal government doesn't care about logic, history, rationale, students, teachers or issues like a dwindling student population base. It cares about balancing the budget and it has decided what it's willing to pay, leaving boards and officials at the local level to choose where the chips fall.

That's where faculty, staff and senior management at both UNBC and CNC are caught in the same predicament. They are being forced to dance with each other in Prince George but the tune is being called from Victoria.

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