The North Island Students’ Union would like to see government funding reinstated for Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs.
Adult Basic Education helps students most in need qualify for higher education and employment. More than half of ABE students are women. About 20 per cent are parents.
The union says the programs had been tuition-free in B.C. since the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell eliminated ABE tuition fees in 2007. But seven years later, government announced a $6.9 million cut to ABE programming, and removed the tuition-free ABE mandate.
“We’re not convinced that it’s going to cost them any less,” said Jessica Sandy, the union’s executive director. “It’s not even that it’s a cost savings, it seems to be just a principal thing they’ve come up with.”
Last fall, she said North Island College had about a 20 per cent drop in ABE enrolment, which represents an approximate four per cent overall drop in the school.
About 30 to 40 per cent of students come through adult upgrading before coming to NIC, she added.
Before funding was cut last fall, Alanna Mitchell was working full-time and upgrading courses in the evening because her high school English and math were not accepted as prerequisites for her college program of choice. When she started upgrading English, she paid a $15 assessment fee to determine her level, and a $25 application fee to start upgrading.
After the funding cut, Mitchell paid $213.30 (not including workbooks) for a two-credit math course. Unaware of the Adult Upgrading Grant, she paid the entire amount out of pocket.
“It was really hard,” said Mitchell, who later qualified for a grant that covered tuition and books for math. “I don’t think I would be able to continue taking courses if it were not for the grant, especially because my work contract just ended.”
Last year, NIC was among 18 colleges in B.C. to receive funds ($6.9 million in one-time funding) to continue to provide ABE.
But Sandy said many schools used that money to hire someone to assist with grant applications.
“Why are we trying to make this more difficult?” Sandy said. “It’s people trying to retrain themselves, and we should be encouraging that.”
Government concurs that adult upgrading programs are important but says schools are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver courses free of charge.
“The decision to allow institutions to charge tuition for adult upgrading programs was necessary to ensure sustainability of these important programs, while upfront, non-repayable grants are available for low-income students,” Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson said in a statement. “Adult upgrading grants cover the cost of tuition, textbooks, supplies, transportation and childcare. Grants for half the cost of tuition are available for students with an income of up to 10 per cent above the income threshold.”
The union says government’s definition of ‘low-income’ will shut out thousands of students because the Adult Upgrading Grant is only available to those making $23,647 or less.
But Wilkinson notes the income threshold for free tuition and other expenses for a single person is $23,647 while the threshold for a student with two dependents is $36,192.
More than 4,500 students accessed upgrading grants in 2015-16 compared to 4,244 students the previous year, Wilkinson added.
In 2015-16, he said government spent $7.6 million more on funding Adult Upgrading Grants “because our government is committed to ensuring that public post-secondary education remains affordable for students, taxpayers and government.”