Adult Basic Education in BC – Why screw up a good thing? – Part 1
By Peter Ewart
The provincial government has put much emphasis on what it claims will be the 1 million job openings in the province expected by 2022. In its “Skills for Jobs Blueprint”, it promises to provide “a clear and seamless path” from high school through to the workplace.
An important part of this clear and seamless path are the Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs offered through colleges and high schools. Indeed, ABE programs are seen as a gateway to success at the post-secondary level, whether in trades training, technology, health professions, or university degree programs.
ABE students include those wishing to upgrade their skills and education for better job opportunities or to enter college and university programs, those aiming to complete high school graduation and people wishing to improve basic literacy and numeracy. All of them are motivated to better their lot in life. But many face significant obstacles.
ABE students include a high proportion of low income earners (an estimated 71% live below the poverty line), including single parents, women, aboriginal people, immigrants, and individuals with disabilities or learning difficulties of one type or another.
Many ABE students have already completed high school and are seeking to upgrade because the education stream they took in high school did not provide them with the background necessary to enter a particular field or their marks were not high enough. In addition, students may have been out of school for several years or more and need to take refresher courses, especially in the fields of math, physics, science, reading and writing. Without ABE courses, adult learners can find post-secondary programs, whether trades, technical, or professional, extremely difficult and challenging.
Since 2007, ABE courses have been offered free of charge to BC residents. This has been important because ABE students are not eligible to apply for student loans and most have a low income.
So it makes sense to have ABE programs as part of “a clear and seamless path” to higher education. They provide the vital link by which adult learners, many of whom are from marginalized populations, can prepare themselves to enter post-secondary programs and embark on productive and rewarding careers.
It is also an important mechanism by which the provincial government can address the looming skills shortage. This was made clear in a 2013 report funded by both the provincial and federal governments which concluded that “ABE course completion lays the needed groundwork for success in post-secondary education and labour market attachment” (1).
In 2013/14, 50,000 students in the province took ABE courses (24,100 in school districts and 25,000 in post-secondary institutions). There are many inspiring stories about what they, and students from previous years, have accomplished often against very difficult challenges.
But the question must be asked: If Adult Basic Education in BC makes so much sense, why screw it up? Unfortunately, that is exactly what the provincial government appears to be doing.
On December 4th, 2014, the Ministry of Advanced Education made the unexpected announcement that there would be major cuts to ABE base funding (this follows the slashing of ESL funding on April 1, 2014). These cuts could result in students, many of whom already have low incomes, support families, and juggle part-time jobs, paying up to $1600 per semester or $530 per course. To compensate, some students may be eligible for tuition grants, but many will not.
These dramatic fee increases apply to all students taking ABE courses at post-secondary institutions. Similar fees will also apply for students in school districts who have already graduated but are seeking to fill in gaps in their high school education or want to take refresher courses to meet eligibility requirements for post-secondary programs.
Furthermore, these cuts will pose particular challenges for students living in northern, remote and smaller communities. As CNC instructor Alison Anderson notes, “many northern communities lack Adult Upgrading Centres” and “online learning is not an option as [for example] only 8 out of 21 First Nations communities in the CNC region have broadband internet connection.”
How does all of this fit with the provincial government’s claim to be providing a clear and seamless path for struggling students?
See Part 2, for the next article in this series where this question and other related issues will be further discussed.
(1) 2013 Developmental Student Outcomes Survey: Report of Findings. Government of British Columbia.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: email@example.com