Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter is on board with the directed funding for universities and colleges.

Post-secondary ‘re-engineering’ begins

Traditional arts and science education isn't dead, but it's making way for in-demand skills college and university funds redirected

VICTORIA – Premier Christy Clark’s push to “re-engineer” the B.C. education system is moving ahead aggressively in B.C.’s 25 post-secondary institutions.

One of the first tasks for Andrew Wilkinson in his new role as advanced education minister was to outline the shift in operating grants for colleges and universities to in-demand occupations. By 2017, a quarter of the money for post-secondary institutions will be directed to areas where labour force surveys forecast a need.

This was greeted with some alarm when it was announced last year. Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter at first downplayed the coming skills shortage as “relatively small” and warned against pushing post-secondary institutions into a “zero sum battle for dollars.”

Petter has since come on board, as his approving comments were featured in the ministry’s Jan. 26 news release detailing the shift. He and others have been assured that in spite of Clark’s rhetoric, suggesting trades training is in and university is out, the news for SFU and other universities isn’t all that bleak.

Wilkinson is completing a province-wide tour of all post-secondary institutions this week, and I reached him at his visit to Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

“The response to this has generally been pretty good, because the students are putting this pressure on institutions themselves,” he said. “Some of the institutions are … shrinking things like teacher education and putting more effort into the science-based, quantitative fields that are often related to these in-demand occupations.”

The surplus of teacher graduates has been noticeable for some time, but that’s largely a function of oversupply in urban areas. In the Cariboo, for example, teaching jobs are projected to have the highest number of openings by 2022, followed by nursing and retail and wholesale trade managers. Then come heavy duty mechanics and electricians, but also paraprofessional jobs in legal, social, community and educational services.

Province-wide, it’s part of a broader demographic shift to fewer children and more retirees. In fact the government started this targeted funding a decade ago with health care, forcing universities to produce more doctors, nurses, lab techs and so forth.

The retiring baby boom is expected to account for more than half of the openings in the next decade, which will expand the skills demand across most fields, beyond the trades training for the anticipated liquefied natural gas industry and other high-demand industrial areas such as truck driving.

Wilkinson notes that of the ministry’s $1.9 billion budget, about 60 per cent goes into general post-secondary education, for introductory courses that students take when they are seeking a career path, through undergraduate studies to professions.

“So I think the idea that we’re going to somehow minimize or diminish funding in that general education, arts and science category is just not true,” he said.

Key to this shift is measuring the performance of courses offered at colleges, universities and technical schools. Each year, the ministry surveys about 30,000 graduates to find out whether their studies helped them find a related job.

The results are available on a website that breaks them out by institution and general study area. To find it, do a web search for “BC student outcomes” and select the “executive dashboard” to check the results for courses and schools in your region.

The site provides charts showing the percentage of students who land relevant jobs. Not surprisingly, it tends to be higher for technical programs and lower for fine arts.

It also shows grads’ average wages, a sobering but useful bit of information for high school students and their parents.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc


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