MLA Chong says Liberals are doing all they can for students

Liberal Ida Chong, the incumbent MLA candidate for the Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding, is defending Liberal budget decisions in the lead-up to a May 14 provincial election. Chong is the current B.C. Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation and previously held office as Minister of Advanced Education and Minister of Science and Universities, among other portfolios.

One of the major issues in the coming election is the continued high cost of post-secondary education and growing levels of youth unemployment and underemployment. This is particularly important as part of the B.C. Liberals’ election platform, which includes points for providing a fiscally sound and balanced budget, providing an environment that small businesses can grow in and “strengthening public education so students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.” According to Chong, post-secondary funding has been the highest in B.C. history under the B.C. Liberals (this year, it will be approximately $1.9 billion). But according to UVic administration, university funding has decreased in recent years, and post-secondary funding in B.C. is going to be cut by $50 million over the next three years.

“In fact, because the budget for advanced education has increased every year, now if the universities have chosen to, they get that core budget and they have to provide those services,” said Chong. “If they change the way they provide those services, that is their option . . . but . . .  the money that the universities and the colleges [receive], I believe the amount has increased every single year, or maybe it could have been one year that it was flat-lined.”

However, UVic’s finance committee has reported “structural deficits” — instances where projected revenues of a financial system are persistently insufficient to cover the system’s costs and liabilities without raising additional revenue or lowering costs. These structural deficits are caused by government funding not increasing sufficiently to cover annual increases in staff salaries or meet rising costs due to inflation, according to UVic. In the 2013–2014 fiscal year, UVic will implement a four per cent cut across all departments to mitigate the structural deficits.

UVic Manager of Media Relations and Public Affairs Denise Helm said, “The university is concerned that will be difficult to achieve without affecting the quality of educational services to students, given the budget reductions and the fact provincial operating funds have remained static over the past two years despite unfunded inflationary pressures in the university sector.”

She added, “UVic has already been reducing its costs for several years and is looking to departments for further reductions due to the decrease in provincial funding, while also protecting key areas such as student financial aid and library acquisitions.”

When asked about the cuts to UVic’s budget, Chong stated that perhaps the cuts were required due to university choices. “I think that universities say that they have to spend more to deliver their services. They have to take a look at their budgets, as we have taken a look at our budgets.”

A report by Deloitte & Touche LLP, consultants, commissioned by the Ministry of Advanced Education in July 2012, outlines ways that UVic and other B.C. post-secondary institutions can cut costs. The report’s preliminary findings show that, province-wide, post-secondary institutions can make a number of one-time and annual savings for a total of $38 million to $83 million per year, once most recommendations are fully implemented in six years. Helm says UVic is already ahead of this. “For instance, by co-ordinating all campus courier services through one supplier, it is saving approximately $200 000 a year,” she said.

When Chong was asked about the emphasis on trades training in the Speech to the Throne and the possibility of greater co-op funding or a youth unemployment initiative, she responded, “The fundamental core values that our party believes in is that we want to grow the economy, and growing the economy by enabling businesses to want to invest in those jobs that those people are going to university and colleges to be trained up for.” Chong added that no business will come to B.C. or Victoria (no matter how well-trained the workers are) if B.C. has an uncompetitive tax system, unfair labour laws and unnecessarily cumbersome commercial regulations.

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