Early in January 2016, Groundwork magazine presented an opportunity to reflect on how a grant funding application process is playing out for Adult Basic Education in the province. Groundwork Editor Michelle Vandepol’s interview with Lynn Horvat is excerpted here. http://issuu.com/abeabcgroundwork/docs/groundwork_winter_2016_issue
1. What has been the response to your published work “Re-Framing the Conversation: Respecting Adult Basic Education in British Columbia”?
Of course, for educators working with students whose lives are impacted by the 2015 ABE funding changes, the document resonates. We see first-hand that the lives of ABE students, the working poor and often the most vulnerable citizens, are getting harder and harder. Otherwise, there is not much in the document that is arguable. The facts are pretty clear. The lives of the poor are not getting any easier, and setting up barriers to education makes absolutely no sense, even to the BC Liberals own Jobs Plan. Most discussions with folks who don’t want to acknowledge this become discussions about ideology. The more removed stakeholders are from students’ real life experiences, the “so-called” bottom line (and I say “so-called” because we are in an artificially created ABE funding crisis in the midst of a BC government budget surplus) – the bottom line – becomes most important and that mentality trickles down: educational funding cuts and shifts, program instability, program closures, class cancellations, diminished access for students who need it most. It puts administrators and educators at cross-purposes. I think that pretty much sums up where we have been in 2015. We’re hopeful that this is shifting for 2016.
2. What surprised you most in your research?
I was most surprised by how strategic governments (the BC Liberals, Federal Conservatives, for example) have been for more than a decade in cutting, reducing and shifting funding and formulating policies that disadvantage the most vulnerable citizens. Multiple areas are implicated: social services, childcare, education, health, employment standards, employment insurance, worker’s compensation, and the criminal justice system. This has been consistent with the neo-liberal/conservative era, and it was shocking to see in detail how cutthroat it has been.
3. What were the main factors contributing to the “erosion of public safeguards that are diminishing the possibility of a second chance for adult learners”?
The BC Liberals track record since they took power in 2001 demonstrates plainly an erosion of public safeguards for second-chance learners. Broadly, funding cuts and shifts have contributed to increasing the gap between rich and poor: BC has the second highest child poverty rate in Canada and highest cost of living. More specifically, ABE students juggle paid or unpaid work with attending school. They are low wage earners in precarious employment. They are at-risk youth, the working poor and heads of families. They often face multiple barriers to education and employment. For all these reasons, they may need additional time to complete their basic education. A compassionate government would be making it easier for adult students to go to school, not setting up barriers. A government concerned about the future of jobs and employment would do likewise.
4. Do you see the conversation reframing around literacy and adult basic education in BC?
There were so many losses in 2014/15 (lack of provincial support for ESL education, loss of the GED, funding cuts to national literacy organizations, loss of core funding for ABE in the public post-secondary system (Ministry of Advanced Education), loss of the Education Guarantee in the K-12 system (Ministry of Education). The hits were huge and happened without consultation. Educators spent 2015 reeling from these hits. It is incomprehensible to ABE educators why the government would put in place an unwieldy grant application process to weed out high-income learners, when almost all ABE learners are low-income earners. It’s a lot of extra work for everyone involved, a lot of unnecessary scrutiny. It’s tight-fisted giving that makes it harder for students to get to classes, and distracts institutions and educators from their educational purpose. We’ve worked tirelessly throughout 2015 to communicate all this, and now we do have a conversation going and a measure of consultation. We are working very hard to ensure access to ABE courses for all levels of adult learners from fundamental reading, writing, math and computer literacy levels through to graduation.
5. Have you received any responses from government to “Re-framing the Conversation”?
There has been no direct response, but positions are well documented in press releases and from debates in the Legislature.
With respect to the change in the ABE funding mechanism, the BC Liberals can claim college boards asked for tuition fees. Colleges can claim they are at the mercy of government power and control. Students and educators are caught in this mess.
At the end of 2014, the government announced its ABE funding changes. News came through the Ministry of Education (K-12) camp: It viewed parents as having the means to afford, and who should pay for, any courses their graduated children found themselves lacking or in need of upgrading. In addition to being a very narrow view of who adult learners are, it eliminated the “Education Guarantee” and judged learners as undeserving of a second chance.
At the same time, ABE learners in the college system (Ministry of Advanced Education) were implicated, but the rules played out differently by replacing a sizeable portion of core funding with a funding mechanism that combines tuition fees and amplified grant funding. Minister Wilkinson has stated that the BC Liberals’ intention is to put ABE funding in the hands of students. Yes, more students are accessing grant funding, but that is only because more students can’t afford the steep tuition fees. The ABE students, who used to pay for UPass fees, student union fees, and other smaller college fees, cannot afford the high tuition fees (equivalent to and higher than some university level courses). Furthermore, previously when a student could afford a portion of their overall fees, it was often a source of pride for students; so even that is gone.
Yes, the BC Liberals can claim they are funding more grants, but this is only because more students need grants in order to cover steep tuition fees. Previously, with full core funding, students who could pay their smaller fees did; all students were covered and the barriers were lower.
Additionally, once you bring in an application process for basic education learners, issues around navigating bureaucracy, document literacy and financial literacy come to the fore. It raises barriers, denies access and reduces enrolment.
The government continues to respond to all this complexity by erroneously stating that non-graduated adults can still access classes for free in the K-12 system. Technically, yes; but opportunities for access are narrow. The misleading part here is that most school boards around the province do not have adult education programs, so it’s not really a viable option across the province. Furthermore, in the populated Metro Vancouver area, students in school board adult education programs have suffered through budget cuts and learning centre closures. In a K-12 system that isn’t mandated to provide for adults, adult programs are vulnerable to funding cuts and shifting priorities.
On days when I’m feeling generous, I convince myself that this has come about due to a huge oversight. On more skeptical days, it feels strategic. Either way, it implicates lives and society, and it is tragic. It doesn’t even support the BC Liberals own Jobs Plan. It defies logic why the BC Liberals would try to make it harder for adult upgrading students and second chance learners. Of course, all of this could have been averted with up front consultation.
6. Anything else you want Groundwork readers to know?
I can’t underscore enough how important it is to understand and respond to what is behind the shifting of ABE funding from full core funding to a tuition-based-grant-funding model. It is government setting rules and maintaining strict control while removing itself from the responsibility to provide access for students. It is a structure that is a private education model that threatens access to a basic education for BC’s most vulnerable adult learners and citizens. If we have a lesson to learn, it comes from our students whose lives correlate with deep courage, dedication and resiliency. We must continue in that spirit and advocate for what is right.
Lynn Horvat – January 9, 2016
Author of Re-Framing the Conversation – Respecting Adult Basic Education in BC (Dec 2014)