Thankfully for their residents, not every province handles adult education like BC where the government has eroded access to high-school level courses for adults while other provinces are making basic education more accessible.
In mid January, the Province of Ontario announced policy changes to make adult education more affordable and to ensure that low and middle income adults have access to the education they need to “complete their high school diploma and/or to complete specific courses required for entry into postsecondary education institutions and apprenticeship programs.”
With this new policy, Ontario adults who earn less than $50,000 a year are eligible for free tuition for adult basic education. Those with young children are eligible for free tuition if they earn $60,000 or less. Over 150,000 adults are expected to benefit from the changes.
“Our government believes that a person’s ability to access postsecondary education should be based on their ability to learn, and not on their ability to pay,” said Ontario Deputy Premier Deb Matthews who is responsible for adult education.
Thankfully for their residents, not every province handles adult education like BC.
Last December, Quebec’s Education Minister Sébastien Proulx announced $20 million in additional funding to adult education, including $4 million to school boards for literacy programs, $200,000 to the Quebec Literacy Foundation that coordinates literacy education and an additional $1.3 million to companies to provide employees with literacy training. (Quebec asks employers to save one per cent of their payroll to fund workplace literacy and training.)
This starkly contrasts with British Columbia’s approach to adult education. In December 2014, the Province imposed tuition fees for Grade 11 and 12 upgrading courses, which used to be free but now cost students $300 to $800 per course. The rationale, according to then Ministers of Advanced Education and Education, was that the adult education system was getting too expensive for the Province and some people were enrolled in free upgrading courses who could afford to pay for them.
The Adult Upgrading Grant (AUG), which covers tuition costs for the lowest-income students, is only available to those who earn less than $24,144. For adults with two dependents, the cut off is $36,955. Both are far below the tuition-free cut-off in Ontario. As a result, many adults in BC who need high-school level courses to get into trades training or other post-secondary education but earn more than the Province’s cut-off are unable to afford the fees. In trying to deter a few, the province has cast its tuition net too wide.
Enrolment in adult basic education in post-secondary institutions declined in the first months of the new tuition policy. Data for 2015/2016 post-secondary enrolment is not yet available, but the downward trend is likely to continue. Eroding access to adult education also goes against the government’s promise to prioritize skills training and job creation.
Public investment in adult education improves lives, fights poverty, supports local economies and creates more equitable access to higher education.
Ontario and Quebec clearly recognize the social and economic benefits of creating a barrier-free bridge between secondary school and the next stage of life be it post-secondary education, training or employment. These provinces also recognize that investment in education at this vulnerable juncture in people’s lives pays off – adult basic education is where public education does its heavy lifting.
There are many ways for British Columbia to increase access to adult education:
- Follow the Ontario model and raise the eligibility for free tuition to include lower middle class adults and families.
- Ensure all school districts are adequately funded to offer courses for adults that lead to graduation and upgrading.
- Introduce flexibility as in Manitoba where adults with a secondary school diploma can take up to four upgrading courses before tuition is charged, allowing people to upgrade for college entry with fewer financial barriers.
- Create a policy vision for adult education and training that promotes equitable access to adult basic education courses and consistency in course/tuition fees across the province.
The federal government also has a role to ensure that Canadians have equitable access to adult education regardless of where they live. BC adults are currently at a disadvantage in relation to other provinces.
Public investment in adult education improves lives, fights poverty, supports local economies and creates more equitable access to higher education. BC should follow the example of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba among other Canadian provinces and provide tuition-free adult basic education to those who need it.