Aug 29, 2017

Lifting tuition fees for adult basic education is just the beginning

Wokandapix / Pixabay

The August 8, 2017 announcement that the new NDP government was fulfilling a promise to end tuition fees for Adult Basic Education students and English Language Learners in time for September classes is welcome indeed. This is the first step in undoing an educational wrong.

The BC Liberals announced in late 2014 that “adults with the means to do so” would be required to pay up to $1600 per semester to take courses leading to high school graduation in colleges and post-secondary institutions. Courses leading to high school graduation remained free in school districts, but with reduced access due to what some school boards claim as budget pressures.

It cost an adult a whopping $550 per course merely to upgrade a Math 11 or English 12 course. As I wrote on Policy Note earlier this year, this policy put BC out of sync with other provinces, which recognized that adult basic education is key to poverty reduction and an essential educational innovation to meet ever-changing workplace and learning needs in the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, the misconceptions and prejudices toward adult basic education that led to this punitive policy won’t disappear with the tuition fees. Somehow, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Advanced Education officials became convinced that adult basic education classes were populated by wealthy BMW-driving people who weren’t paying their fair share, and who had already had their chance at an education. Imagine their surprise when the Adult Upgrading Grant—which was introduced alongside the new tuition fees to cover fees for adults earning less than $24,144 per year—was soon over-subscribed.

Adult basic education is key for poverty reduction and essential to meet ever-changing workplace and learning needs.

It quickly became clear that few adults in need of high school upgrading courses “had the means” to pay the exorbitant tuition fees after all. Thousands of potential students who earned just over the cut off rate left the system and enrolment in adult basic education dropped on average by 35% province-wide. Demand for the Adult Upgrading Grant soared among those who did qualify, with AUG spending increasing from $2.7 million in 2014/2015 to $10.7 million in 2015/2016 according to Ministry documents. The AUG also introduced a new layer of bureaucracy and some reports suggest its budget increased to $13 million in 2016/2017. British Columbians were paying more to educate fewer people.

This is what happens when education policy is made on the basis of bias and anecdote, and when decision makers have very little experience of the lives of low income citizens. This is also what happens when we allow technocratic and legalistic approaches to public education guide our policies. An Ernst and Young audit of the Vancouver School Board’s finances, commissioned by the Provincial Government in 2015, advised cuts to adult education as “non-core/non-K12” services.

The idea that adult basic education is a “non-core service” and falls outside the core public education mandate has taken hold in Vancouver, and was offered as a rationale for closing adult education centres in the city, including the Main Street Adult Education Centre at Gladstone Secondary in June 2017, which served about 500 learners.

This new orthodoxy is thankfully not shared by all education districts. Delta and Coquitlam school districts, for example, have maintained healthy adult literacy and basic education programs. But if we are to enliven adult literacy and basic education as central pillars of a public education system committed to social, educational and economic inclusion, then lifting tuition fees for ABE courses is just the beginning. Attitudes need to change, systematic inequalities in funding need to resolved and social distance between policy makers and citizens needs to be breached. Here are some questions (and possible steps) to get this work started:

What do we want from a 21st Century public education system?

When auditing firms are able to redefine what counts as public education’s ‘core’ mandate, it’s probably time for a new education commission. We haven’t had one since the pre-Internet, pre-globalization era of the 1988 Sullivan Report’s A Legacy for Learners. A new commission could stimulate much-needed dialogue about a vision for public education that responds to the interconnectedness and complexities of living and learning in the 21st Century. Adults raise children who attend public schools, they vote and they work. They do not all attend university in their 20s. In the era of fake news, an advancing digital society, and the rapid automation and transformation of work, the education of older youth and adults matters to everyone.

With tuition fees gone, can we also agree that adult education should be equitably funded?

Currently, adult education students are funded 40% less than students in the K-12 system. This is also the case (with different formulas), for adult basic education (ABE) and upgrading in post-secondary institutions. This funding discrepancy per full-time equivalent (FTE) seats, contributes to the view among education administrators who need to balance budgets that adult education is a liability rather than an asset. Yet it is adult basic education and academic upgrading courses that provide a gateway for thousands of students to better jobs, inclusive citizenship, and enrolment in further education in the fee-based university system. According to the now defunct DEVSO report of adult education outcomes, 68% of ABE students surveyed in 2014 went on to further learning; 93% said they were very likely or somewhat likely to do so. Adult basic education does a lot of heavy lifting in the public education system.

Attitudes need to change, systematic inequalities in funding need to resolved and social distance between policy makers and citizens needs to be breached.

What education innovations can improve equitable access, retention and completion in adult basic education?

There is currently no provision for equitable access to adult literacy and basic education programs in the province. If you live in Coquitlam and want to take or retake Math 12 you’re lucky. McBride? Be prepared to travel far, pay or go without.

Women, Indigenous people and lone parents were most affected by the tuition fees and cuts to adult basic education.

To address these inequities, and to ensure adult learning programs operate at capacity and meet diverse learning needs, there should be multiple ways for people to upgrade their basic education. Centres need to be located close to affordable transit; access to affordable child care is vital. Online learning is an option for some, if the courses are well-designed and if people have equitable access to the Internet, digital skills and functional devices.

We are a long way from achieving that in BC. Minimum course enrolment targets need to be reasonable and attainable and adult educators need to have access to professional development and course preparation time like any other educator.

Where will the adult educators of the future come from?

The past several years has seen the dismantling of adult literacy and basic education programs in all sectors and communities. Experienced and dedicated educators have left the system. We will need to build new capacity for skilled educators who can work successfully with older youth and adults; teaching adults is not the same as teaching children.

How do we bring future education leaders on board with the goals and contributions of adult learning?

Adult basic education has existed in some form since the inception of the K-12 public education itself. This is because no system can meet all the education needs of an ever-changing, complex society. So, if adult basic education and upgrading is here to stay, how do we rebuild relationships between the K-12 and adult education?

We could start by having education decision-makers visit adult learning settings, and include adult education in curricular and policy plans. Those of us who work in university faculties of education also need to step in. Teacher education programs are already overflowing with content, but few new teachers take courses that address the diversity of education practices and programs in our communities and still fewer learn how to work with parents, or about the role that adult learning plays in supporting the K-12 system. We need to broaden “what counts” as educational practice.

Adult education is not only an educational policy issue, it is integral to economic and social policy, an engine for poverty reduction and an essential piece of an inclusive vision for public education. Let’s start thinking bigger, wider and deeper.

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