An Open Letter to the BC Minister of Advanced Education

An Open Letter to the BC Minister of Advanced Education On behalf of colleagues from public post-secondary institutions throughout BC, we would like to add our voices to the outcry over the Ministry’s recent decision around funding reductions and tuition for Adult Basic Education. With respectful acknowledgement of the more recently announced transition funding, we remain resolute in our plea to keep ABE tuition free in BC. This letter represents the voice of British Columbia’s ABE instructors who come to work every day to help others better their lives, lay a foundation for further education, graduate high school, and improve employability and life management skills. Their students are missing components of their education, components which hold them back in life and work, components considered basic and to which they are rightfully entitled. ABE students, as a group, comprise some of the most vulnerable citizens in the country. They return to school, demonstrating great courage and tenacity, to break through barriers to success. Aside from giving individuals the opportunity to experience individual growth and success, supporting ABE learners benefits all of society. Although there are myriad reasons to maintain the well-established fundamental right of tuition-free ABE, we will focus on ten salient aspects:

  1. Section 5 of the College and Institute Act outlines provision of comprehensive adult basic education as a core object of a college. Removing tuition compensation funds and allowing institutions to charge up to $1600/term for tuition contradicts this mandate by undermining the capacity of colleges and institutions to keep adult basic education broadly accessible.
  2. As noted in the BC Skills for Jobs Blueprint, we need skilled workers to enhance our economy and replace an estimated 58,700 retiring workers by 2018.  Many underemployed and undereducated British Columbian adults can fill this need if they have the basic skills to succeed in the training programs. Those with low skills need access to tuition-free upgrading to give them the basic skills for career programs and further training.
  3. Not addressing the skills gaps amongst our most vulnerable citizens is ultimately more costly than funding education up front.  It is well-documented that low literacy and lack of opportunity leads to  poorer health outcomes, higher involvement in illegal activities, generational cycles of poverty and low literacy, and lack of involvement in the economy and society. The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network’s 2012 Investing in Upskilling report identifies a 1496% return on investment for even a modest increase in literacy levels. ABE provides this upskilling opportunity.
  4. Aboriginal learners, women, single parents, Canadian citizens who come from a refugee or immigrant experience, individuals who have survived abuse, addictions, homelessness, the working poor – these are ABE students.  These people cannot afford tuition fees, and the province cannot afford to ignore them. The “Call to Action” in the Ministry’s own Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Training Policy Framework and Action Plan notes 54% of Aboriginal public high school students graduate as compared to 83% of non-Aboriginal students – an improvement over past decades. Access to tuition-free ABE enables the remaining non-graduated Aboriginal learners to achieve the basic right of high school graduation.
  5. Tuition fees impose an insurmountable barrier for almost all ABE students. Those of our students who do manage to find paid work usually live well below the living wage. Students struggle to go back to school even with tuition-free status; they have to quit work or cut back at minimum wage jobs, pay for childcare, transit, and supplies. They are back in school, generally, because they don’t make enough money! Rural students are doubly slammed as they often travel greater distances, have fewer options and services available – like transportation and education, experience greater isolation, and have seasonal, limited, or no work options. Tuition fees will cause massive drops in the number of citizens who engage with education in the province. Citizens already living in economic and social isolation, many in rural areas, will be further isolated and impoverished.
  6. The Adult Upgrading Grants are limited and difficult for students to access and qualify for. Administering this system is potentially less efficient than providing the funding directly to institutions. In addition, valuable instructor time will be used in helping students navigate grants as the application process itself is a barrier for those struggling with literacy.
  7. BC’s ABE system is exemplary, long-standing, and well integrated with stakeholders (partner organizations, school districts, and social change organizations) at all levels in the communities in every college region. ABE in BC has been under development since the 1960s and is now responsive, relevant, and highly effective. ABE courses and methodology are specific to the needs of adults, provincially articulated, and thoroughly researched. Imposing tuition will undermine a system that currently works, perhaps causing irreparable damage.
  8. Although tuition-free adult upgrading will be offered through school districts for those without a high school diploma, unlike colleges, school districts are not mandated to provide adult basic education. Some do not provide it at all, while others only provide independent study courses, which are unsuitable for many learners, especially those struggling with basic literacy and numeracy. Distance upgrading is not suitable for many adult learners, both because of its pedagogical limitations and because of the digital divide (lack of infrastructure) in many remote communities. This is a particular problem in Aboriginal communities, many of whom still do not have broadband internet access.
  9. Each institution has developed their program to uniquely address the needs of their local population. Rural institutions, for example, serve the composite needs of their region and population, and ABE is a vital component of outreach and education, particularly in serving marginalized and isolated populations. Undermining ABE potentially undermines the entire institution and, in turn, the entire region. Each institution could face a similar threat to their way of doing business if ABE delivery is diminished.
  10.  Imposing tuition risks overturning the positive gain adult upgrading is achieving: creating a community of educated individuals who have tools to set future goals, realize achievements and get better paying jobs.  Many ABE students have multiple barriers in life; keeping ABE barrier-free provides an opportunity for those students to explore learning in a safe, supportive environment and consequently engage meaningfully and productively in our society.

Basic education is a basic right. As the group poised to witness most closely the impact of imposing tuition for adult basic education, we are vehemently opposed. We ask that you engage with us in this discussion and that you reverse the decision to change the funding to ABE programs in the public post-secondary system. Sincerely on behalf of the ABE Articulation Representatives of BC, Allison Alder, Chair Adult Basic Education Articulation Steering Committee


Dark Days for ABE in BC: Letter from educator, Michael Szasz


Public adult education is being destroyed in British Columbia. The B.C. government’s cuts to English as Second Language (ESL) and to Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs in community colleges is a shortsighted—or blind—attack on public education.

Last year the B.C. government’s cuts caused Vancouver Community College to shut down almost all its ESL programs. Now, cutting tuition-free grade school level courses, the college will be “offering” the same upgrading classes for up to $1600 per term. For most adults in need of upgrading, this is prohibitive. It is also a revocation of the government’s long-standing commitment to helping adults help themselves by attending tuition-free upgrading courses to grade 12 level.

In the early 70s, there was new hope for undereducated adults. Community colleges all over B.C. started upgrading programs, so adults could improve their education and go on to career courses. (About 70 percent of adult learners do.) By the 1990s the value of community college upgrading was recognized by governments both provincially and federally through a commitment to tuition-free courses to Grade 12 level.

I’ve been retired from adult education for over ten years; it’s really sad to see it being destroyed now. Here’s just one example: recently I met a student who had been in one of my classes about twenty-five years ago. How had he fared? He is married and has two growing children. After he left VCC, he got a job with a technical firm; years later he was laid off again. But he could go back and take more training, has a new career, and he and his family are fine. Imagine if he had not had that initial upgrading. And multiply this example by thousands over the years—unemployed adults who need to retrain for a career, single parents who need to find work, people in almost any walk of life whose circumstances have changed. Now they have no way back up, no help, no hope.

These are truly dark times for public adult education in B.C. Much more, it’s the human, personal cost of each life hampered by lack of opportunity, the social cost in wasted potential, and eventually the cost to taxpayers in health, unemployment and other social ills that come from deprivation. Not to mention that government has moral and social obligations to taxpayers.

What has happened to Premier Christy Clark’s edict, “Families first”? Why is it that this government can invest billions in business initiatives and megaprojects, but less and less in people? Surely, if B.C. prospers according to plan, we will need a more educated workforce. We don’t need more people living on the street in poverty.

Michael Szasz

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