MLA Report: September 2012

The start of a new school year is a good time to reflect on the many ways that learning and the acquisition of knowledge contribute to our society. Education is a great equalizer, and our education system opens doors to opportunity. When we step through those doors, dreams are realized.

Education fosters happy, productive citizens who in turn contribute to strong, healthy communities. Our education system is a crucial part of building a robust economy that is sustainable in the long term for British Columbia, and it plays a fundamental role in the making of a more equal society.

Accessible and affordable education has always been important; perhaps never more so than today, as Canada’s level of equality continues to decline due to an ever-widening wage gap. A report last year by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the divide between the highest and lowest wages in Canada has grown, and is higher than the average in other countries.

B.C.’s level of income inequality is second highest in the country, according to the Conference Board of Canada. In B.C., the top one percent of income earners received 12 percent of total income in 2007; only in Alberta did the top one percent garner a greater share of the pie.

Making education accessible to all can reduce inequality and help more citizens reach their greatest potential. But it only happens with a strong public education system, supported by governments committed to step up and do their part.

That means support for programs that increase access for everybody, such as special education and English Language Learning (ELL), appropriate classroom funding, and post-secondary classes and trades training that answer the needs of today and tomorrow. It demands that government begin to address the real issues around affordability and accessibility throughout the entire education system.

Student debt loads are higher than they’ve ever been, and tuition fees have more than doubled since this government took office 11 years ago. Students in B.C. are paying the highest student loan interest rates in Canada (prime plus 2.5 percent) and are carrying an average debt load of more than $27,000 upon graduation.

Yet changes to the B.C. student loan Repayment Assistance Plan announced in June don’t go far enough to address the squeeze students and families are facing. The modifications do very little to improve overall post-secondary affordability and access, and they don’t provide the kind of up-front assistance low- and middle-income families need to access education. While the plan does provide some extra support for low-income families when repaying their student loans, the first stage only provides assistance for the interest portion. It takes years to reach the second stage, which helps with the principal. The average recently graduated student may not even qualify.

We must make tackling barriers to education a priority, and B.C.’s Official Opposition is prepared to answer that call. One way to help is a fully costed, needs-based student grant program, as Adrian Dix has committed to. It would open the doors for opportunities for students, and help employers find the skilled workers they need to build our economy.

It’s time to answer the bell, and truly put education first – in words and in actions. This September, let’s commit to making education a top priority. Our future is depending on it.