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The province needs to do a better job of funding postsecondary education, University of Victoria president David Turpin says. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)
The province needs to do a better job of funding postsecondary education, University of Victoria president David Turpin says. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

B.C. universities warn of jobs crisis Add to ...

The province’s leading universities have fired a warning shot across the bow of Premier Christy Clark’s vaunted jobs agenda.

Without increased government funding of postsecondary education and better financial aid for hard-pressed students, B.C. faces a bleak future of jobs going begging, according to a report presented Thursday to the legislature’s select finance committee.

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“This is about the future of the province ... and the province needs to do better,” David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria, said in an interview.

Otherwise, Mr. Turpin said, many future jobs will not be filled because B.C. will not have enough sufficiently educated people to fill them, while unemployment grows, due to a shortage of skilled workers.

“It’s the worst possible combination: jobs without people and people without jobs,” he said.

Under the slogan “Canada Starts Here,” Ms. Clark has promoted a jobs agenda as the cornerstone of her administration, claiming B.C. is now leading the country in job creation. Mr. Turpin presented the concise report, Opportunity Agenda for B.C., on behalf of the Research Universities’ Council, representing B.C.’s six main universities.

At a time when the province has hacked $50-million from postsecondary spending for the next two years, the report calls for the injection of more than $180-million in new money, spread over four years.

The extra cash would fund 11,000 additional spaces in university, college and trade programs, plus provide students in need with an annual, provincial grant of $1,500.

Unlike Ontario, Alberta and several other provinces, B.C. does not currently have a student grant program. Nor does B.C. have a graduate fellowship program, which Ontario, Alberta and Quebec have in place.

“The Chinese government supports more PhD students at the University of Victoria than the B.C. government does,” Mr. Turpin said.

The report pointed out that 78 per cent of the estimated one million job openings predicted for B.C. in the next decade will require some postsecondary education, and the way things are going, tens of thousands of those positions will not be able to find qualified employees. Mr. Turpin said universities understand the economic pressures government finances are under.

“But we are going to come out of this downturn. When companies then want to grow and hire, if there’s nobody there to hire, how are we going to survive? We can’t be complacent,” he declared. “The time to invest is now, and there’s room to improve.”

Advanced Education Minister John Yap said late Thursday he had not yet had time to go through the report, referring to its recommendations as “a wish list” from the universities. “Their job is to advocate for postsecondary education, and it’s great that they’re doing that.”

But, in general, he said the province is already making a significant, multibillion dollar investment in advanced education, and the government is committed to balancing the budget. “We would like to do more, but we are facing tough fiscal challenges.”

Asked about the universities’ concern over dire employment consequences that may flow from not beefing up postsecondary spending, Mr. Yap pointed to a recent announcement by Ms. Clark, committing $75-million in trades training “throughout the province.”

The universities also called for more support for post-secondary innovation and research, in addition to the report’s other two pillars: a space for every qualified student, and a guarantee for students in need.

Noting the current outcry over the hiring of temporary workers from China and other countries, Mr. Turpin warned that a failure to follow through on the universities’ plan could lead to those workers becoming permanent “if there are no people to hire with skills.“

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

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