Premier John Horgan fulfilled a key NDP campaign promise Tuesday by scrapping tuition fees for adult basic education and English language training programs across B.C.
The announcement reversed a move by the previous Liberal government to impose fees on students who were trying improve their English or upgrade high school courses in order to get a job or gain admission to college or university.
The fees, which took effect in 2015, were set by post-secondary schools at up to $1,600 for a semester of full-time studies. Grants were available for low-income students to cover tuition fees and other costs.
“Adult basic education for all of us should be free,” Horgan told a news conference at Camosun College. “It should be a right, and we’re going to follow through on that commitment.”
Horgan said the Liberal policy led to a 35 per cent drop in enrolment for the two programs. There were 6,692 full-time equivalent spaces in 2016-17, down from 10,244 in 2013-14, the government said.
“That’s meant that thousands of people have missed out on an opportunity to make life better for themselves and for their families,” he said. “We can’t afford to leave people behind. As a new government, we want to make sure that everyone can participate in our economy.”
The Opposition Liberals were unavailable for comment on Tuesday. Before their defeat on a confidence vote in June, the Liberal government promised in its throne speech to “fully fund adult basic education and ESL programs.”
The B.C. Federation of Students said Horgan’s announcement will help low- and middle-income students receive a basic education.
“It’s a pretty exciting day,” said Simka Marshall, federation chairperson. “It means that students are going to be able to access the programs; they’re not going to have to worry about paying the same price as college courses or higher.”
George Davison, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C., said the tuition fees imposed by the Liberals led to enrolment declines of up to 60 per cent at some campuses.
“These are entry-level programs for the post-secondary system, and when the previous government put $1,600 a term on, it was a huge barrier for students to get into courses,” he said. “So we saw numbers drop dramatically at some of our institutions.”
The elimination of fees “will allow students to get back in the system, and once they get their high school upgrading and figure out where they want to go, they’ll go into other programs that do have tuition,” Davison said. “They’ll come out with diplomas or degrees that will make them paying taxpayers and it will all come back over time.”
Camosun alumna Lorena Alvarez, who came to Canada from Mexico 10 years ago, said the English language training she received at the college allowed her to earn a diploma in community, family and child studies and land a full-time job at a child-care program in Esquimalt.
“Fortunately, at that time the ESL program was free of charge — just as it will be again today,” she told the news conference.
“At that time, I needed a job, but I could not get a job without the language.”
Horgan said the cost of eliminating the tuition fees will be included in the government’s budget update in September. The NDP platform estimated the cost at $4 million for the remainder of this year and $7 million for a full fiscal year.
The government will be working with school administrators to assist students who have already paid for the coming semester, he said.
“I don’t want to put them on the spot, but we’re going to be doing everything we can to make sure that those who have paid, in anticipation of September, get a refund,” he said.