Posts in "education"

Democracy and education: they go together, except when the government doesn’t like it?

(originally posted at PoliticsRespun.org – see here)

The recent controversy over the Vancouver School Board’s budget situation has been a bit of an interesting story to follow.  Much like every other school board in the province, the VSB has been wrangling with a considerable problem: the costs of providing a high-quality public education continuously increase, while the funding that comes from the provincial government doesn’t keep pace.

This isn’t a problem that only the elementary, middle, and high schools face; indeed, every public educational institution in this province, from the Vancouver School Board to Simon Fraser University must somehow find a way to balance their budgets in the face of increasing costs and stagnant levels of funding.  I’m certainly not an accountant, but the financial problem that all school boards — and our colleges and universities — face is a substantial one.  When costs increase and funding doesn’t match, then cuts to education need to be made because the provincial government has legally required all school boards, colleges, and universities to submit balanced budgets.   To repeat: all school boards, colleges, universities, and public educational institutions are required, by law, to submit balanced budgets.  This is a feat that even the provincial government itself couldn’t accomplish, instead, they amended their balanced budget law giving themselves a pass.

But the legally required balanced budgets aren’t the crux of this issue.  The true centre of the controversy was the fact that the Vancouver School Board stood up and spoke out about their financial issues.  They publicly called upon the provincial government to fairly fund education.  They postponed approving their budget because the legally required balanced budget would have meant substantial cuts to education and school closures.  They acted as advocates for education.

It seems that this was something that the province didn’t want the VSB to do.  The minister of education commissioned the comptroller general to investigate the school board’s management practices and report back with recommendations on how the budget could be balanced.  The submitted report essentially branded the VSB trustees as incompetent; apparently, they spent too much time discussing the impacts of underfunding on the school district, they spent too much time discussing how they could best advocate for education, and they didn’t spent nearly enough time just dealing with it and cutting education.  Of course, the issue of provincial funding was out-of-bounds for the comptroller general’s report.

It’s interesting to note what wasn’t out-of-bounds, though: the entire principle of elected school boards.  The report from the comptroller general noted that elected school trustees, for some entirely incomprehensible reason, felt that their job was to advocate for education.  And because education actually needs a lot of advocacy under the BC Liberals, the trustees had been engaging in advocacy.  So, the comptroller general suggested that the government should re-consider the ‘co-governance’ model of education.  Reconsider having elected school boards.

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envision education / get involved with the university community

“envision education”
A community-led visioning workshop – creating a new vision for our university

What is this event?
“envision education” is a community-led visioning workshop that brings together members of the university community to develop a plan for our university. Community resistance to cutbacks, budget reductions, layoffs, and program elimination is met with two general responses: “what would you rather us do?” and “there is no alternative.” A workshop that brings together the university community will enable us to develop an alternative, and propose ideas that we can work for at our university.
Think of your ideas that would answer these questions: what should our university be? What should education be? How do we get there?
The workshop will be led by organizers with the SFU Community Coalition, and is open to all members of the university community.

When and where?
The workshop will be held on Friday, May 15th from 11:30am to 1:30pm in room MBC 2290 at the SFU Burnaby campus.

Who can participate?
All members of the university community are welcome to participate – a broad range of participation allows us to develop a wide and encompassing idea of what we think our university should be.

How do I sign up?
If you would like to attend and participate in the visioning workshop, please confirm your attendance by contacting Kevin Harding by email at kharding@sfu.ca. Please include your name, email address, and which campus constituency you belong to (APSA, CUPE, SFUFA, TSSU, GSS, SFSS, Poly Party, or other) to help the organizers plan for numbers. Please register by May 14th.

What do I need to bring?
Mostly yourself – we hope to have representation from all the community constituencies so that we can bring together a wide vision of what the university should be. Bring your thoughts on what you think the university and education should be, and how we can get there.

The take-home message?
· “envision education”
· a community-led visioning workshop – creating a new vision for our university
· Friday, May 15th, 11:30am-1:30pm.
· Register by emailing your details to kharding@sfu.ca
· Think about these questions: what should our university be? What should education be? How do we get there?

guelph action / activism elsewhere

71cfe5dd4abdb7ba02524cc4f36f-1So, a bit of a break from my roughly 20k-words worth of papers is due, in my estimation.  I’ve come across some evidence of another university going through similar budgetary difficulties as SFU has recently — at the University of Guelph, in Ontario.

Apparently, as part of a budgetary review sparked by a “budgetary crisis,” the university has proposed axing the Women’s Studies program.  According to the university admin, this isn’t being done because of any political views or disagreements with the content of the program, but because it simply isn’t fiscally feasible to provide the program.

Here’s a quote from the administration, courtesy of the Ontarion, the university’s student newspaper:

“It’s not about women’s studies. The university is in a serious financial crisis,” said associate vice-president academic and psychology professor Serge Desmarais. “Given the budgetary issues that are going on, the deans decided to look at what had low enrolment. We must ask whether certain programs are worth sustaining.”

This quote is quite similar to the one used at Simon Fraser University when the administration suspended the Canadian Studies program — closing off its admissions and cutting funding.  Here, the administration pointed to a low enrolment in the program and argued that this was proof that the program was unsustainable.

According to a Guelph local newspaper, faculty and students aren’t just letting the program die quietly.  Faculty and students have sent letters and protested the closure to the media.   Recently, over 100 students, faculty, and staff banded together and marched on the administration building to protest the closure of the program.

One student noted that

“(U of G president Alastair) Summerlee got a raise for an amount over and above what it costs to run the women’s studies program,” Anastasia Zavarella added. “That’s just galling.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting quotes out of Guelph is from a former director of the program:

Helen Hoy, the former co-ordinator of the women’s studies program who now teaches two courses in the program, said it’s chronic underfunding that has kept enrolment numbers low and not lack of popularity.

She said the program has grown since 1995 to include not just feminism but race, sexual orientation, age and social justice issues.

“Yes it’s a time of financial difficulty, but this panicked talk is to encourage us to fold. This is not the time to back away,” she said.

According to Hoy, chronic underfunding is the reason for the low enrolment numbers.  This makes sense to me, in a very real sense; program underunding often prevents programs from being able to offer enough courses to draw students in and allow them to complete their degrees in a timely manner.  If programs and courses aren’t available due to low funding, and thus infrequent offerings, students quite simply won’t take them.

We just saw a similar thing happen to Canadian Studies.  The most interesting quote out of the final public lecture from Canadian Studies was by Mel Watkins, who, according to The Peak:

[…] made a similar argument in a more provocative manner, suggesting “only half facetiously” that the funding should be transferred from Economics and Business departments, since the dominant theories of those disciplines are partially responsible for the recession.