WHY is the B.C. government squeezing our universities and colleges so tightly when it comes to funding?
For a government that insists its top priority is job creation, its refusal to more adequately fund the kind of education that leads to good, productive jobs is both puzzling and extremely short-sighted.
This year's provincial budget contained bleak news for universities and colleges. After several years of barely adequate funding, this year's budget projected a reduction in funding for those institutions for the next two years following the current one.
The 25 publicly funded universities, colleges and institutes have been told to find $70 million in administrative "savings" to offset the impact of funding cuts.
In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the presidents of every one of those institutions has signed a joint letter to Advanced Education Minister Naomi Yamamoto, warning that her government's budget will result in service and program cuts for students.
Post-secondary education is often the overlooked orphan in many provincial budgets. The sector lacks the heft that other areas - notably health, K-12 education and the justice system - have to bring pressure to a government when it comes to demands for more funding.
Part of the problem is that many people don't even come into contact with the post-secondary system at any point in their lives. Stereotyped images abound: privileged youth who complain too much about their tuition fees; pampered professors and instructors who work in the proverbial ivory tower; campuses that are self-contained villages that have no relation to the real world.
So for years, it is the universities, colleges and institutes that have gotten short shrift whenever a government has some financial belt-tightening to do. Inflation and other annual cost pressures haven't been funded, and now throw in a funding cut and a serious crisis looms on the horizon.
But that looming crisis will extend far beyond a college or university campus. Demographic and technological changes point to a serious skills shortage in the coming years.
It's estimated that in the next 20 years, three-quarters of all jobs in Canada will require some kind of postsecondary training. About one-third of all jobs will require a completed degree.
The skills shortage will affect a wide assortment of occupations, and many of them will have a direct impact on many people who rely on services provided by people in those occupations.
For example, medical technologists and technicians (which include people who operate key machines, such as MRIs) will be in short supply by the end of the decade. We also won't have enough doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, therapists, architects, social service workers, engineers, contractors and lawyers (yes, even lawyers).
If governments of all stripes don't act now to address that looming skills shortage, it will simply extend the shortage for years. That means a vast portion of our society that rely on those skills practitioners will face longer waits for those services, if they can get them at all.
So it's hard to square this bleak forecast with how governments are treating the post-secondary sector. In British Columbia, most institutions have yet to make bare how the funding cuts will affect their operations.
But some have. In Victoria, Camosun College has announced deep cuts to programs and services to deal with a projected $2.5-million deficit.
Such programs as computer science and communications will be eliminated, and language programs will be cut. Yamamoto was entirely unsympathetic to the college's situation, telling the Times-Colonist newspaper that she questioned the need for a communications program and suggesting maybe students could go elsewhere.
These kinds of scenarios will be replayed at the other 24 institutions over the next few years. Students won't get the education or training that they need, and of course that has dire consequences down the road.
Premier Christy Clark loves to talk about her Jobs Plan. But one has to wonder at the irony of it all - talking about creating jobs, while at the same time doing exactly the kind of thing that will leave so many jobs unfilled in the years ahead.
Governments are always accused of living in the moment and being only interested in quick political payoffs and not in policies that have long-term beneficial impacts.
The treatment of our universities and colleges is simply the latest example of that unfortunate approach to governing.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C..