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How BC Libs Aim to Reinvent Higher Ed

'Campus 2020' report promises upheaval without progress.

Crawford Kilian 2 May

Crawford Kilian is the author of School Wars: The Assault on BC Education (1985) and 2020 Visions: The Futures of Canadian Education (1995). He is the last of Capilano College's original faculty still teaching full-time.

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Capilano College in North Vancouver.

The Campus 2020 report came out late in April, and rarely has such an education policy paper had such an immediate and powerful impact.

The 114-page report is well written and well researched by its author, former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant. It reflects Plant's energetic consultation with stakeholders and community representatives, and his enthusiasm for tackling major policy issues. Unusual among such reports, it's a personal statement, so I feel free to respond to it personally.

I strongly agree with many of Plant's key points, though I don't always draw the conclusions that he does. But a careful reading of the report suggests that Geoff Plant is a little too in love with his own rhetoric, and hasn't always grasped the realities behind that rhetoric.

And it's baffling why he should want to promote some colleges to "regional universities" while stripping others of their existing degree programs. In effect, Plant would consign Douglas College, Langara, VCC, and my own Capilano College to permanent third-class status.

A contradictory desire

A key contradiction in Plant's report arises from a simultaneous desire to impose an almost Chinese vision of governmental supremacy ("Five Great Goals for British Columbia") with a free-market ideologue's vision of the student as almighty customer.

The Five Greats of the B.C. Liberal government are not that different in intent from the Four Modernizations that Deng Xiaoping promoted when I taught in China back in 1983. The ones that matter most to Campus 2020 are the first and fifth: "Make B.C... the best-educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent; Create more jobs per capita than anywhere else in Canada."

Let's dispel one illusion right away: post-secondary education is not about the quest for knowledge and personal enlightenment. It's about getting a job. So "best-educated" is code for "best qualified for high-paying jobs." Public education is about subsidizing people's career paths, in the reasonable hope that jobs that pay well will also generate higher taxes.

I have no problem with this. I've spent 40 happy years making my students more employable. I take pains to show them what most Canadians earn, and what a difference their education will make in their lifetime incomes.

But at the same time, North American culture in the last three decades has increasingly treated education as a consumer commodity. Colleges and universities have become enormous shopping malls, eagerly courting customers. Programs live or die depending on student demand. As tuition has soared, students want assurance that their investment will pay off. Their choices can make or break a program. (After the dot-com bust, some very expensive computer-training programs at Capilano College imploded when students realized their certificates wouldn't get them jobs.)

Who cares about global leadership?

So here's the contradiction: Plant wants education to help make B.C. "the best place on Earth." He also wants our institutions to make us "global leaders in teaching and knowledge discovery." Why? "To address our most pressing social and environmental challenges and to develop a strong economy." But our students/customers don't necessarily accept those goals as their own.

Plant's hyperventilation about global leadership and being the best doesn't make sense except as an attempt to re-brand us. We could create a superb education system for B.C. that would be totally irrelevant to California or Portugal or Singapore, so why aspire to "leadership"? For that matter, if the Portuguese came up with a great idea, we'd be smart to follow their leadership.

And what if our best and brightest, having been educated to address our social and environmental challenges, decide that a strong economy and a top-down government are major hazards to society and the environment?

Campus 2020 makes a wonderful demand for spreading the benefits of education across all classes: "By 2020 post-secondary participation and attainment rates will be equalized across the province's regions and income quartiles." That is, poor kids in Telegraph Creek will be as educated as rich kids in Point Grey.

I hope it happens. It would be a logical extension of the access provided by the colleges, which have opened doors for working-class students, women, and immigrants. I like to imagine UBC in 2020 when First Nations kids from Telegraph Creek and Hartley Bay are taking the places in medical school and law courses that now go to the kids from Point Grey.

Most literate? Not likely

Plant wants these students to be not just the best educated but also the most literate on the continent. After 40 years of teaching grammar, spelling, and punctuation, I can say it's not going to happen.

Some of the students I teach these days are fine writers, but many don't know the difference between "were" and "where," "than" and "then." Their literacy is perhaps slightly worse than that of the students I taught in 1967. Even spell checkers don't help.

I also have many bright immigrant and international students who have passed the English proficiency tests but still can't write correct basic English. As Plant himself notes, we will see many more such students in the future.

So unless the K-12 schools can suddenly achieve what they have failed to do since the 1960s, we're not going to see B.C. post-secondary students suddenly forge to the head of the literacy race.

Where we really are the best

While enjoying the sound of buzzwords like "best," and "leadership," Plant has largely missed the parts of the system where those terms actually apply. One important area is in the community colleges' degree programs.

I've taught at Cap since it opened in 1968. So I'm biased, but I'm also extremely proud of what my colleagues and I have accomplished. I've taught in our outdoor-recreation and tourism programs since 1972. They are genuine leaders in their field because they have grown and branched and repeatedly transformed themselves.

Our students graduate, get some work experience, and then return to the tourism degree program we've designed for them. Our program is the provincial standard. We attract students from as far away as China, India, Brazil, France, and Holland -- as well as many aboriginal students.

Many of my former first-year students return to enroll in my advanced tourism communications course, and I marvel at how well they do. Most hold down full-time jobs while studying. They are confident, experienced young professionals with an astounding capacity for hard, imaginative work.

The process works both ways: the students expect the best from us, and we work like hell to meet their demands. We can't coast on last year's handouts. The field is always changing, and we've got to keep up. The same is true of our other degree programs in fields like business, jazz studies, and music therapy. For faculty, this is "hard fun" and a major reason why we love our jobs.

Programs like ours have opened new opportunities for students to advance in their careers. But Geoff Plant is unhappy because our "applied" degrees aren't legally defined. He would junk the term and give all degree-granting powers to provincial and regional universities.

From world leader to farm team

So if we wanted to continue with our tourism degree, we would in effect have to hand it over to some other school. We might then continue to run it as a wholly-owned subsidiary of that university. (The thousand graduates who already hold our degrees might find them severely devalued.)

This really rankles an old-timer like me. When Capilano College started, UBC wanted to decide which of our instructors would be allowed to teach our first-year English courses. BCIT (itself only four years old when we opened in 1968) decreed what textbooks we could use in our career programs.

We had to fight to win some autonomy. To lose it now would be disastrous for a college whose reputation and influence now extend from North Vancouver to Europe and China.

Post-secondary education is a brutally stratified society. I deplore that aspect of our culture, but I can't change it. We are also suckers for "title inflation": college principals soon became presidents, and Plant himself admits that "university college" has not been a satisfactory label. Hence his suggestion for a still more inflationary title, "regional university."

If regional universities are indeed created, B.C. community colleges -- both in the lower mainland and elsewhere -- will become mere farm teams. Ambitious young academics will shun the colleges as they would shun any dead-end career. Students will turn to the colleges only after being rejected by the provincial and regional universities.

Our falling enrolments would mean less funding and fewer opportunities to develop good new one- and two-year career programs. Within a few years we could well be sold off, as TechBC was sold off to become "SFU Surrey," to become the North Van campus of Kwantlen Regional University or maybe BCIT.

Geoff Plant is unclear about why the regional colleges should be limited to Malaspina in Nanaimo, to Fraser Valley, and to Kwantlen in Surrey, Richmond, and Langley. His only argument is that they serve areas of high population growth (and presumably high voter growth).

But Capilano's region extends from Deep Cove to Egmont on the Sunshine Coast to Pemberton and Mount Currie. Squamish and Whistler will grow dramatically between now and 2010. We serve a population of over 150,000.

Students come to us from all over Vancouver, and from the Fraser Valley. We deliver courses in Harbin and other Chinese cities, not to mention northern France and projects in Vietnam.

Many other flaws

I've dwelt for understandable reasons on the threat of Campus 2020 to my own college, but the report has many other flaws. For all his consultation, Geoff Plant seems unclear on many concepts that post-secondary educators are keenly aware of.

For example, he wants rich and poor British Columbians, urban and rural, to enjoy proportional enrolment and success in post-secondary. But everyone knows what kind of debt students must run up, especially since the B.C. Liberals ended the tuition freeze six years ago.

Too many of our students have to work full time or part time while trying to study full time. It's stressing them badly and hurting the quality of their schoolwork. Until tuition comes down and student funding goes up, post-secondary will be out of reach for thousands of British Columbians.

Plant also wants aboriginal students to catch up with the rest of the province in their participation and graduation rates. I'd love to see it, and it might be possible in a highly flexible and well-funded system. In the "efficient" system he wants, it's a fantasy.

Campus 2020 wants students to learn where they live, but also to rely increasingly on online learning. Politicians love this idea. After almost 20 years of experiments in online education, I still like it too. But it has very limited uses.

Online learning is great for well-educated, highly motivated, "self-propelled" students. For others, it's largely a waste of time. It simply doesn't provide the psychological rewards and intellectual interactions of a face-to-face class, and many online students therefore quit.

Overworked and underfunded

Worse yet, a really effective course or program -- online or face-to-face -- requires well-trained, experienced educators who have the time and skill to develop it. Since the 1990s, and especially since 2001, post-secondary educators have been seriously overworked.

A few have done wonders under these conditions. But "hard fun" is ruined by excessive workloads. Most of us find we can barely keep up with grading the work of our 120 or more students per semester, let alone develop something for next year.

In the colleges, we have been run ragged for six years by the Campbell government's demand for maximizing our "FTE" -- the number of full-time equivalent students we enroll. In effect, we must run lots of crowded classes, hardly any small classes, and we must have no "wasted" space like empty classrooms or unused faculty offices.

This demand has come at a time when the traditional college-age demographic is shrinking and the provincial universities have lowered their entrance requirements, so fewer students come to our university-transfer programs. (In fairness, many university grads come to us looking for useful job skills.)

Our degree programs have been inspired in part by our need to find more students/customers. They have largely succeeded, and our graduates find a demand for their advanced skills in the workplace. Market demand has pushed us to improve our product.

These are real achievements, but we have all paid a high price for them. Faculty and students alike are grossly overworked and short of time. We try to do too much with too little, and still we take seriously the added overwork that Geoff Plant offers us and our students: "weekend learning, asynchronous 24/7 instruction, and 'just in time' teaching."

Teaching is not some stupid video game that rewards quick reflexes and lack of conscious thought. We are preparing students for meaningful work -- not for a life on Charlie Chaplin's speeded-up assembly line in Modern Times.

The wastefulness of 'efficiency'

If Geoff Plant really wanted to improve our post-secondary system, he would have recommended funding enough time for thought, reflection and research at all levels, even the lowly community colleges. Then we could develop the resources to improve our existing programs and create new ones to serve the workplace and universities.

He would have recommended more capital spending, to create classrooms and office spaces before they're needed. Then we'd have room for new faculty and students when we start a new program.

He would have recommended giving students some time and financial aid as well. Then more of them could seriously consider post-secondary and find a balance between work and study.

He should also have known that our present post-secondary system grew in response to local community needs, not by provincial decree. Plant calls for a "Higher Education Presidents' Council" and a "Higher Education Board" to run the system. I suspect that folks in Alert Bay and Mount Currie know more about the needs of aboriginal education than the bureaucratic overseers that Plant has in mind.

Far from "harnessing" college autonomy, Plant would have called for enhancing it, creating a climate of opportunity that would inspire colleges to experiment and pioneer as they did in the 1960s and '70s.

And he would have known that "efficiency" may please the bureaucrats, but it's the curse of educators. We need time to read, to think, to learn new skills, to talk with one another at lunch instead of wolfing down sandwiches at our computers.

Because Geoff Plant is so closely associated with the Campbell government, and is clearly expressing its views, Campus 2020 has shocked the colleges into action as if it were already a bill in the legislature. The colleges will need to convince their own communities that the bad ideas in the report would sabotage the good ones. Far from making post-secondary more accessible and closer to excellence, those bad ideas would only aggravate our current problems.

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