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Liberals make right move by prioritizing in-demand job skills

With billions at stake, the B.C. government made a bold move Tuesday designed to assure liquefied natural gas (LNG) proponents that if they commit to the province there will be workers to fill the jobs. And that change involves a fairly major rewrite of the historical relationship that the government has had with postsecondary institutions, universities in particular.

The government calls it a "re-engineering" of the education system. It could also be described as an ultimatum: From here on, Victoria will play a much larger role in deciding what programs get funded at the postsecondary level and which ones won't. It's an area that universities have generally regarded as sacrosanct – and which governments have mostly resisted intruding into.

Not any more.

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As part of a major overhaul of the province's skills-training regime, the government announced that it is going to shift funding for universities and colleges toward instruction for occupations in which there are critical shortages, mainly in the trades, and away from programs not producing graduates in great demand.

The move is certain to upset presidents at the province's major universities, two of whom just last week warned about an assault by the government on a classical liberal-arts education in favour of skills training. Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter, a former minister of advanced education in B.C., said that any kind of shortage of college and university graduates would be more serious than a shortage of skilled tradespeople.

The Liberal government does not agree.

For more than a few years now, for instance, it has watched universities graduate teachers at excessive rates only for many of them to discover there are no jobs. No doubt, journalism graduates are experiencing the same phenomenon.

There are other degree programs certain to feel the impact of the government's move (philosophy anyone?) and you can bet the universities (and many professors) will lay the blame squarely at the Liberals' feet.

So what is the government's plan? Starting in September, $160-million currently in the postsecondary education system will be redirected toward programs producing graduates needed to fill critical jobs in B.C.; this means more electricians, plumbers, carpenters and so on. In four years, this amount reaches nearly $400-million.

Again, this is money that is currently being used to fund postsecondary education generally. Over the term of the 10-year skills-training plan, almost $3-billion in postsecondary funding will be redirected toward training for high-demand occupations. The government is also increasing scholarships for skills training by 25 per cent – at the expense of ones for students in other programs deemed not as essential to the economy. The province's loan forgiveness program is also being redesigned to give skills-training graduates a break. Meantime, the K-12 curriculum is also getting a makeover to encourage more kids to choose a future that includes the trades. And on and on it goes.

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So, it would seem universities and colleges have a choice: either start producing more graduates the province needs to fill jobs around LNG and other resource industries, or lose a pile of cash it currently is getting from the government. Either way, there are many programs that are going to be affected by this move. Unfortunately, students heading to school next year don't know which ones, and that doesn't seem fair, especially if you've already committed to a school that may have to bring the axe down on positions it has already guaranteed.

As much as I'm a fan of a liberal-arts education, the B.C. government did the right thing here. It doesn't have the money to add to what advanced education is already getting, so it had to come up with a plan that made do with what existed. That's what it has done, while targeting programs that have for years been oversubscribed when measured against the opportunities their students have upon graduation.

More importantly, those LNG companies considering sinking billions into the province, some on the very verge of making that big decision, needed reassurance that there will be skilled workers to fill the jobs their massive investments will create. Without this plan, Petronas and Shell and others likely walk away from B.C.

Fact is, the B.C. government has been considering this move for some time anyway. It just needed the fiscal imperative to assert its will on universities that it has felt, for too long, have been calling most of the shots when it comes to what happens inside the walls of their institutions.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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