The public quarrel between the B.C. government and the Confederation of University Faculty Associations (CUFA) culminated this week in a back-and-forth in the Vancouver Sun, highlighting the increasingly embarrassing disagreement over just how much the government has invested in post-secondary education.
CUFA, along with many public universities and colleges, has been decrying advanced education minister Murray Coell’s 2.6 per cent slash to funding forecasts for universities and colleges since the surprise announcement in March. The $50 million cutback came only weeks before the beginning of the new fiscal year, catching universities off guard.
Surprisingly, the B.C. government never conceded that it had indeed cut funding. Instead, in a brilliant spin, Minister Coell continually denied cutting funds and instead boasted of what he claimed is a 40 per cent hike in PSE funding since 2001. For instance, in a response to a Naniamo Daily News story, Coell wrote, “This year alone, post-secondary institutions received a $68-million budget increase. Since when is a $68-million increase a cutback?”
That’s the question CUFA president Paul Bowles aimed to answer in his an August 20 op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, which kicked off the latest sparring match with the government. The article entitled “Universities are learning when more actually means less” uses annual budget estimates – the same document the government used to calculate its 40 per cent increase figure – to generate their own guessimate: some 24 per cent increase since 2001. Although that is a significant jump in funding, Bowles reasons, enrolment growth has outpaced funding growth, putting per student funding below 2001 levels. Bowles also points out that once inflation is factored in, the real dollar amount is even lower.
Minister Coell responded in Tuesday’s paper with op-ed “We should feel good about university funding.” He wrote, “It never fails to amaze me how some people can take perfectly good news and turn it around, play fast and loose with facts, and make it sound somehow negative.” Coell goes on to argue that per student funding has gone up (from $8,440 per student in 2001-02 to $9,308 in 2008-09), B.C.’s tuition is the fourth lowest in Canada, the government has made significant investments in infrastructure—and, yes, that he’s sticking to his 40 per cent increase figure.
Coell has hit it on the head on at least one point: it is amazing that some people play fast and loose with the facts. The relevant question now is: who is doing the playing?