The University of Victoria campus. (Black Press Media file photo)

LETTER: Invest in higher education to help Island communities recover from COVID-19

Island faculty, union leaders call on government for more post-secondary funding

The current global pandemic has been the largest shock to the Canadian economy since the Great Depression. In order for our local communities on Vancouver Island to recover from this major and ongoing societal upheaval, we need to start thinking ahead, not just reacting to each crisis as it unfolds. The pandemic provides an opportunity to invest in the people of British Columbia and build a stronger, more diversified, and more resilient economy. How can we build this economy? By creating educational and employment opportunities for people in our communities who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. One of the key ways that the provincial government can help these people will be through major and targeted investments in post-secondary education.

Youth are in most urgent need of such investments as youth unemployment is at a staggering 29.1 per cent. Millennials came of age during the 2008 financial crisis. We’ve seen the generational impacts of that crisis in the form of lack of opportunity, insecure employment in the gig economy, and declining rates of unionization. Now Gen Z (those born 1997 and later) is facing an even larger economic and social crisis which is already proving to have widespread impacts on mental health. We need to ensure that this isn’t a lost generation. These young people need opportunities to advance so that they are able to enjoy the same advantages as previous generations. We can do this now by reducing their barriers to post-secondary education. This can be done through tuition fee reduction, student loan forgiveness, and grants to low income students.

Higher education is not just crucial for youth. Many unemployed and underemployed people today will have no choice but to pivot to new careers which, in many cases, will require advanced education. Some sectors of the economy may take years to recover from the pandemic and workers cannot afford to wait. A fully funded and robust post-secondary sector will be absolutely crucial to transitioning these workers into the COVID and post-COVID economies.

From Victoria to Duncan to Nanaimo to Courtenay, Campbell River and beyond, colleges and universities are major economic drivers for our Island communities. They provide education and employment to our fellow Islanders, partner with and support local health care, develop research opportunities that create new businesses, and work with local community and Indigenous groups. They attract domestic and international students to our region who spend money on our local businesses and services and often go on to become valuable members of our communities. Major investments in post-secondary education don’t just benefit students or the people who work at colleges and universities – they benefit our communities as a whole. Maintaining employment and enrolment levels at our local colleges and universities will be crucial to keeping these powerful economic drivers up and running and contributing to our communities during this time of uncertainty.

At this pivotal moment in our province’s history, government at a minimum needs to maintain post-secondary budgets at pre-pandemic levels, by providing funding to compensate for losses in international enrolments and the costs of moving to online instruction. And, in the long-term, the government needs to move away from a post-secondary funding model that is overly reliant on international student tuition fees and thereby makes the sector more vulnerable to economic shocks. Current layoffs in the post-secondary sector across Vancouver Island are only increasing economic difficulties on the Island and will impede the sector’s ability to assist in economic recovery. What is actually needed are major government investments in colleges and universities – a post-secondary “New Deal” which marshals significant government resources to use advanced education to tackle current unemployment and to set our communities on a path towards true long-term sustainability.

Signed,

Chris Ayles, President, Camosun College Faculty Association

David Black, President, Royal Roads University Faculty Association

Pieter Bosma, President, CUPE Local 3886, Royal Roads

Kenneth Christie, Vice President, Royal Roads University Faculty Association Erynne Grant, Labour Relations Officer, CUPE Local 2081, Camosun College

Sheryl Karras, UVic Chapter Chair, Professional Employees Association, UVic

Matthew Koch, Vice President, CUPE Local 4163 (Component 3), UVic

Chris Jaeger, President, Vancouver Island University Faculty Association

Lynne Marks, President, UVic Faculty Association

Tiffany McLaughlin, President, CUPE Local 1858, Vancouver Island University

Greg Melnechuk, President, CUPE Local 4163, UVic

Kirk Mercer, President, CUPE Local 951, UVic

Colleen Nelson, Chair, BCGEU Local 702, Vancouver Island University

Byron Spiers, President, CUPE Local 917, UVic

Keith Todd, President, CUPE Local 2081, Camosun College

Michelle Waite, President, CUPE Local 3479, North Island College

ALSO READ: COVID-19 a barrier for post-secondary students


 

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