KPU continues the fight for more money

Institution has a long history of being provincially underfunded.

By Kier-Christer Junos
[contributing editor]

Long-time Kwantlen Polytechnic University faculty member and Surrey resident Geoff Dean describes the South Fraser and KPU’s situations in one word: shortchanged.

Dean was the president of the Douglas and Kwantlen Faculty Association in 1985. In those days, he and other faculty association officers travelled to Victoria, and Dean talked to the once-premier Rita Johnson, who was a Surrey MLA at the time. Dean told Johnson that he thought funding for KPU was much less than what the South Fraser region deserved, so Johnson asked him to find the facts. And he did, concluding that KPU operates at funding levels that hinder its capabilities to serve the region effectively. It was the case in 1985, and it’s still the case in 2014.

In British Columbia, the Ministry of Advanced Education says the mandates of teaching universities and colleges are to serve their respective geographical regions. KPU’s updated mission and mandate states that, historically, they fulfill their purpose in serving the “Community, regional, industry and market needs.” KPU’s raison d’étre as a polytechnic university includes “the integration of theoretical and applied learning,” a description which the university touts as a “distinguishing feature” to many existing programs at KPU.

The university also boasts 11,000 full-time equivalent seats annually (basically a measure of full-time students an institution can accommodate) – but that number has been closer to 9,000 in the last three years, according to the most recent budget letter from the ministry. KPU offers a diverse range of programs, but when you put KPU in the context of B.C.’s other publicly-funded universities, it can be suggested that there is unrealized potential and enormous funding inequities at the South Fraser-serving institution.

“You’ve got to wait longer to get the courses you need,” says Dean, on the implications of lower FTEs. “You’ve got to wait until next semester, or you go somewhere else to take it.” Dean adds that it costs students more, too, since government funding helps top-up university operating costs.

A long history

The inequity Dean found has existed since the time of Kwantlen College. In 1986, a year into his preliminary research, Dean wrote a letter to a B.C. legislature candidate, who Dean didn’t name in the letter, but was campaigning against the current government at that time. Dean suggested the candidate include his facts to help their campaign: B.C. residents paid about $61 in taxes to support the operating costs of B.C.’s 15 community colleges. People in the Kwantlen College region got back only $28.50 (per capita) for their college — about half of what the region puts in. Subsequently, 40 per cent of the region’s college students had to go elsewhere.

A modern parallel exists. Dean’s research shows that South Fraser residents contributed almost $126-million to the province for its regional post-secondary institutions in 2010-11. Yet, KPU was scheduled to receive less than $65,250,000. Dean continued to check the numbers into the 2000s.

His latest research measures the inequity on the metric of FTEs per 1000 people. The most recent data from Statistics Canada, B.C. Government budget reports, the regional definitions of B.C. Assessment, and the budget letters to institutions from the Ministry of Adv. Ed., illustrate the same inequities he found.

For instance, according to the University of the Fraser Valley’s website, the institution generally serves the populations of the areas where their campuses are: Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission. This is a population of about 262,499 people, or 5.9 per cent of the province. UFV is granted about 25.44 FTEs per 1000 people.

Vancouver City College and Langara College serve the same region (Vancouver), so Dean counted them together. Together, VCC and Langara serve about 603,502 people, or 13.7 per cent of the province. For every 1000 people, the combined colleges have a capability of about 22.5 FTEs.

KPU serves the South Fraser region. This encompasses Surrey, White Rock, rural New Westminster, Tsawwassen, Delta and Richmond. Combined, this is a population of about 844,622 people, or 19.1 per cent of the province’s population. For every 1000 people, KPU has a capability of about 10.7 FTEs–about half the provincial average.

In terms of FTE capabilities of regional universities, KPU is at the bottom of the list. The government mandates institutions to serve their regions, but though the South Fraser’s population is large, the ministry doesn’t include population size in their priorities.

“Government funding of public postsecondary institutions has historically included a mix of factors, and the population of a region isn’t a factor,” says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education, in an email. Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk—who was on KPU’s board of governors from 2009-2013, and was the board’s vice-chair from 2011-2013—was unavailable for an interview before press time.

Dean’s research in 2010-11 also included B.C. institutions’ FTE capabilities for adult basic education and ESL, and his results are reflected here, too. Essentially, less access exists for basic, high school education for a population that needs it pertinantly. The population of people aged 25 to 64 without a high school diploma, in the region served by VCC and Langara, is about 33,748. In this region, the FTEs for ABE per 1000 people is 31.6. The South Fraser region, in the same metric, has about 51,527 people. Here, the FTEs for ABE per 1000 people is 9.8.

The population in either region that doesn’t speak English as a first language is about the same: 300,000, with approximately 30,000 more people in the South Fraser region. VCC and Langara’s FTE capability for ESL is 6.2 per 1000 people, and KPU’s capability is a staggering 0.7 FTEs per 1000 people.

The ministry of education has long-since stopped dictating the number of FTEs that institutions have to offer, saying it’s on institutions to “determine the best way to use those funds to support their students and communities in which they’re located.”

“Our mandate, by provincial law, is that we’ve got to serve our region,” says Dean. “Well, we aren’t funded to do that well enough.”

“The mandates of colleges and teaching universities are to serve geographic regions, and research universities and institutes have provincial mandates,” the ministry says. “This allows all institutions to serve the needs of their students, communities and region.”

KPU Budget Cuts

According to KPU’s vice president of finance Gordon Lee, the university is currently operating at a $2-million deficit. “We are required by the government to run at a balanced budget,” says Lee. “We can’t run at a deficit. And our board of governors also has a policy that we can’t run a deficit . . . We need to balance our budget. And that’s getting harder and harder to do. I’ve been doing this particular job for six years and every year it gets harder and harder.”

Lee also remarked on the government funding cuts KPU has endured over the last few years. Budget requests from various faculties were at about half of what was requested last year when The Runner spoke with Lee in October, partially because all departments have been encouraged to tighten spending. Essentially, less money is being invested in faculty ventures.

Dean suggests that other implications of low funding include higher expenses for students. Expenses once better topped up by government now cost more for students. International tuition increased by about 4.5 per cent this year, for example.

More importantly, in the long run Dean suggests that KPU isn’t generating the number of well-educated people needed in this region for economic vitality. This also applies to trades, where KPU is short-sticked. Dean remarks on the high number of immigrants in this region who “don’t speak English as well as they need to be to take on productive jobs.”

“They’re taxi drivers, or coffee servers because they don’t have the English skills to be certified to be the doctors of lawyers or mechanics they were overseas,” he adds.

What Dean wrote in his letter in 1986 still reflects what he believes is needed today: a long-term plan and acknowledgement of the problem.

“This shortchanging is unfair to the residents of your constituency. It should be stopped,” he wrote. “Yet, the current government has done nothing to correct the situation, and in fact, refuses to acknowledge that it exists.”