Adult learners in peril in BC, written by Dave Smulders

Dave Smulders, Vancouver Community College ABE instructor, speaks out for ABE upgrading students. He emphasizes that all adult upgrading students deserve full support from our government and that these learners, ‘… are working to better themselves and when they do so through advancement to other educational opportunities (tuition-charging ones no less) and new and rewarding career pathways, they not only better themselves, they better their societies. We are all beneficiaries of their efforts.”  Read the full letter below:

Adult learners in peril in BC

Earlier this month, the BC Ministry of Advanced Education announced that it has improved access to grant funding for low-income students wanting to improve their educational standing at the high school level, including English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. This happy dispatch masks the more alarming reality that funding has in fact been cut off for many adults, both those needing ESL instruction and those seeking to take upgrading courses. Those are courses like English 12 or Math 11 that students may have taken as part of their high school education, but for whatever reason the grades for those courses are not sufficient for an individual’s needs, and as a result that student needs to “upgrade.” It seems that the province has decided to prioritize funding, as explained in the ministry’s news release; those who already have their diploma will be helping out with that prioritizing by paying for full tuition for their courses now. This is part of a collection of actions aimed at adult learners during this past year, including the elimination of the General Education Diploma (GED) and ESL funding in the postsecondary system.

According to BC’s Advanced Education website, Education Minister Peter Fassbinder states the following:

“High school is free, but further upgrading is not. I think it is reasonable to expect adults who’ve already graduated to contribute to these costs.”[1]

I would argue that the idea of “further upgrading” is a dubious prospect. There really isn’t such a thing as “further upgrading”, only plain upgrading. Fassbinder makes it sound like adults are taking upgrading courses as a kind of interest-based continuing education that people engage in to keep themselves stimulated, like taking courses on wine tasting or public speaking or world religions, or perhaps he is imagining bored adults who got a B in English and now they’d like try for an A, as a kind of personal challenge and because it’s free anyway, so why not. Fassbinder’s statement gives a good indication about our government’s attitudes toward adult learners, their needs as learners, and their efforts to improve not only themselves but also the society in which they live. As an adult educator, I can state that when an adult learner signs up for a high school upgrading course like English or math or science, he or she does so out of necessity, not out of a passing interest or to burn up educational resources for amusement.

Why do adults need to upgrade, even when they already have a high school credential? In many cases, they do so because the high school education has been insufficient or its value expired or students have been passed through the system as a way to get rid of them rather than to educate them. This is what makes the journey of so many adult learners so amazing. In spite of the poor experience they may have had in high school, or the struggles they have faced as learners and the humiliation that often accompanies those struggles, they decide to carry on. They seek out rewarding careers. They strive to improve their knowledge so that they can become better workers, parents, community members, people.

At Vancouver Community College, where I work in a department that provides courses that will now demand tuition, often adult learners are told that in order to enter a career program like medical office assistant or dental hygiene or counselling, they need to upgrade. In other words, they are not adequately prepared to enter a program because they lack fundamental skills, often in core areas like reading, writing, science and math. What does it matter whether these learners have high school diplomas? In their efforts to enter their desired program, they have revealed through assessments that they need to improve their skills as a way of demonstrating their suitability for said program and its ensuing career streams. They do not have a choice, unless that choice is to pursue one’s education or not.

The American writer James Baldwin once said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” According to the new policy on tuition, it’s also expensive to struggle with one’s learning. Finances can be a huge barrier for such learners, and for many the extra burden will make the choice disturbingly simple. They will not continue. With the province’s decision to charge tuition for upgrading courses, these students are in effect being charged a levy for their lack of knowledge and skill. We have to remember that many students taking upgrading courses are trying to get into other programs, often career-related programs. In other words, they are trying to get into tuition-based programs. Stated more plainly and in accordance with our government’s aims, they want to pay for their education. When they are deemed ineligible for a program because they lack the fundamental skills, they are consigned to pay even more to achieve their goals. Now, they must pay for all the courses they need to take simply in order to qualify for a program. In effect, they are being fined for not being smart enough in the first place, if you want to be very cynical about it. And the greater the gap in knowledge, the steeper the fine. A student who has to upgrade his or her writing skills, for instance, from an assessed level of Grade 9 will have to pay twice as much as the student whose assessment revealed a Grade 11 level of writing skill. This is nothing less than a tax on the mind.

I spend my working days with these adult learners, most of whom are taking upgrading courses in English. These are not ESL learners. Many have graduated from BC high schools, but they have decided to take up their education again and have found themselves wanting. Our students are learning right from the start how read carefully, how to comprehend main ideas of a text, how to write sentences and paragraphs, and eventually how to plan, compose and review essays and reports and how to interpret complex texts. The process for advancing is sometimes slow and rarely easy for these learners; it can be a long road. I have had discussions in which learners have confessed that they are having trouble composing correct sentences because they don’t know what a sentence is. I have to try to imagine what it means for someone to admit to this gap in knowledge. Divulging such a thing to their instructor is brave and admirable. These are learners who are trying to recoup the losses suffered in high school. Yet, they strive. Minister Fassbinder suggests such learners deserve to pay full tuition for this experience.

What’s more, we should re-evaluate Minister Fassbinder’s assertion that these learners had their shot at high school education, and they blew it. Is this really an attitude that we should support towards the people of BC? You get one chance; now deal with the consequences? Bombing high school should not be a life sentence. Those who put themselves into situations of cognitive challenges, like returning to school, are developing their minds and increasing their intelligence, once a trait we assumed to have inherited as part of our birth. Science tells us that by avoiding such challenges, we risk cognitive stagnation, which can have long-term negative effects on our mental and physical well being. We also know that giving up in the face of such challenges is relatively easy; it is much easier to simply stay at home and distract ourselves with light amusement like television than it is to enter into unfamiliar situations and expose ourselves to new information, particularly when one’s experience of learning has been difficult or one’s experience of schooling, like high school, has not been salutary. Never mind the vulnerabilities that such adult learners must reveal when they participate in upgrading courses.

Nonetheless, I admire these learners because they are working to better themselves and when they do so through advancement to other educational opportunities (tuition-charging ones no less) and new and rewarding career pathways, they not only better themselves, they better their societies. We are all beneficiaries of their efforts. Instead, we continue to punish them for their past. They deserve better.

Dave Smulders

Vancouver, BC




3 thoughts on “Adult learners in peril in BC, written by Dave Smulders

  1. What a fantastic letter, Dave! Thank you Jan for posting it. This is my favourite part: “With the province’s decision to charge tuition for upgrading courses, these students are in effect being charged a levy for their lack of knowledge and skill….This is nothing less than a tax on the mind.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Melinda's Education Blog and commented:

    Vancouver Community College instructor Dave Smulders has written an excellent letter to the provincial government about why the move to charge tuition for people who are doing adult upgrading is “nothing less than a tax on the mind.” It’s a wonderful letter and I encourage you to read the entire thing.


  3. Thanks Jan for posting the letter from Dave. I really hope they do reduce the tuition fees for the ABE programs around Vancouver and the other countries that are affected by the high tuition fees.


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