Students Struggle to Find Access to Post-Secondary Education in Surrey

A lack of space in post-secondary institutions is forcing residents to achieve higher learning across the Fraser
Alyssa Laube, Associate Editor

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A shortage of space in post-secondary institutions in Surrey is forcing high school graduates to leave the area in order to attend college and university. (Tommy Nguyen)

A paper released by the Surrey Board of Trade in 2012 titled “Can the Future Learn in Surrey and in the South Fraser?” raises many questions still relevant to students and potential students living in the Lower Mainland today.

“Greater investment in post-secondary education is urgently needed in Surrey and the South Fraser Region to ensure its economic viability, to meet the local market demand for an educated workforce, and to secure an adequate supply of entrepreneurs,” reads the report’s introductory paragraph.

According to the authors, the following socio-economic factors are driving the need for further investment into education South of the Fraser: access to post-secondary education, benefits for business, and social benefits. A list of necessary actions is also documented, calling on the provincial government to triple “the number of post-secondary student spaces per resident in the South Fraser region from 2014 through 2025.”

“Without this action, B.C.’s most populous and fastest growing region may not be capable of harnessing its potential to become a social and economic powerhouse. The scarcity of skilled labour and research facilities in the local market will continue to significantly hinder the growth of Surrey’s core business community,” reads the report. “The region’s need for capital expenditures targeting socio-economic problems will increase. The challenge for local businesses seeking to attract and retain skilled individuals—especially those seeking opportunities for advancement—will increase.”

CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, Anita Huberman, was the driving force behind the creation of the paper back in 2012. She feels that many of the problems she noticed then are still noticeable in Surrey and other municipalities South of the Fraser today, though the government has stepped in to provide funding since.

“When we created that report we were facing significant funding issues on all fronts in Surrey—so in transportation, healthcare, and education,” she says. “I heard that we didn’t have enough spaces for our kids to be able to go to university or college at SFU or Kwantlen, and I heard that our kids are being educated more and more in portables in the K to 12 space and that the quality of education was being compromised.”

Her reaction was concern for “attractiveness to Surrey, creating good quality jobs and human capital for career and entrepreneurial pathways.” In response, she formed a committee to conduct research on the issue, bring community stakeholders together, and discuss possible solutions.

According to Huberman, the government did notice. Recent space investments have been announced for SFU and KPU, with KPU preparing to open a new campus and build a student union building, as well as renovating old spaces. However, the local government’s investments in these projects have not been enough to match the population growth in the city.

“We’re going to be the largest city in British Columbia very soon, and that means that there needs to be a different type of capital needs project for the universities in Surrey,” says Huberman. “We’re hoping that after the provincial election there will be a further dialogue about a unique type of initiative for Surrey university, education, and K to 12 space.”

Because there is so little space for graduating high school students in the post-secondary system South of the Fraser, many of them either travel downtown to go to school or move away from the area entirely. The result is a rapid loss of intelligent youth from an area—also known as a brain drain—which harms local culture, innovation, and economy.

“It is not an okay thing for our students to be educated elsewhere. I recall statistics indicate that if you are educated in the city that you live in, you are more likely to work or start a business in the city that you’re educated in,” says Huberman. “We want to make sure that our universities have enough space for our local kids to be educated in, and that they stay in our city to build our city.”

The Surrey Board of Trade will be raising these concerns to the provincial candidates during the upcoming election. They will not only be aiming to address concerns revolving around university space, but also space for young students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Nathan Hildebrand, a member of the Surrey School Coalition, believes in the importance of investing in elementary and high school. By doing so, he argues, students will be more inclined to pursue post-secondary education in their hometowns.

“I did approach both SFU and Kwantlen because I wanted them to join our coalition to put more pressure on the government and demonstrate the need for more money in Surrey for schools,” says Hildebrand. “Both of them saw the benefit in my angle, which is that if the learning conditions were better in high school, that would produce more people who are interested in pursuing post-secondary education.”

Though neither school chose to join Hildebrand’s group, he and the remainder of the Surrey School Coalition did have the support of KPU. Today the university, like most educational institutions in the area, is still feeling the need for more funding and space to accommodate students South of the Fraser.

“If the province doesn’t cough up more money to improve the K to 12 education, then enrolment will go down,” says Hildebrand. “Everyone is jammed into overcrowded schools and they’re missing out on extra-curricular activities because there’s only so many spots on a school team.”

Hildebrand agrees with Huberman that, in the same sense that elementary and high schools in the Lower Mainland are suffering from a lack of space and funding, post-secondary schools need to grow with Surrey’s population. Improving the quality of education before post-secondary school will not be as beneficial as it could be without creating more space for university students. If more engaged students are graduating high school, but there’s no room for them in our post-secondary system, they will continue to be forced into other areas.

“You want to keep your creatives, aspiring young entrepreneurs and talented people in your community, you want to encourage kids to live and work as close to home and their family and community as much as you can,” says Hildebrand. “It’s always good to keep our young, smart kids at home instead of studying or working abroad. They’re future taxpayers, right?”

Huberman agrees, “Kids need to be educated, kids need to have access to courses, and it can’t take six years to get through university. They need to have career and entrepreneurial pathways available to them after evaluation.”

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