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British Columbia B.C. adult education students now forced to pay course-upgrade costs

Jaquelin Najera studies at the Downtown East Education Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on April 30, 2015.

Ben Nelms/for The Globe & Mail

B.C. adults needing to upgrade or supplement their high school credits to get into a postsecondary institution are going to have to pay for their courses after provincial cuts to adult education go into effect Friday.

Students and teachers say the change requiring students to pay $550 per credit could have damaging ripple effects.

In 2013-2014, 25,000 students got adult-upgrading courses from 28 postsecondary institutions across the province. Another 10,000 students received ESL courses, the Ministry of Education said.

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Education Minister Peter Fassbender announced the change in December.

"I think it is reasonable to expect adults who've already graduated to contribute to these costs," he said then.

The ministry said in a statement Thursday that courses that allow adults to obtain their high school diplomas will remain free. For those who already have their Grade 12, more grant money is available and the income threshold required to qualify for a grant has been raised.

But Chris Murphy, who was teaching Grade 11 to adult learners, said the change was shocking.

Mr. Murphy said his students, many working two or three low-paying jobs to put food on the table, were on track to finish their humanities and sciences requirements so they could move on to postsecondary education – for them, a crucial path out of poverty and into better jobs.

Some of them will need to spend thousands of dollars to get the courses they need, he said.

"It's hard because [the students] are asking you, 'What do we do? How do we finish?' And it's hard to know what to tell them," said Mr. Murphy, who believes the policy change will be "detrimental to our community and to the province."

He said the saddest thing is to "think of all the success stories that will never happen."

Levente Mihalik, 25, said for him, like many, his high school years weren't the time for learning.

"I was just there to have fun," he said, "I did not pay attention whatsoever."

Now he excels in precalculus. Because of the adult graduated student programs, he will have the credits he needs to get a postsecondary degree in technical education in a few weeks.

He said that some people think that adult education is for people who "screwed up in life."

But he said it's really not like that. His classmates have varied backgrounds: some are from immigrant families, some have learning disabilities, some are single parents, some are recovering addicts. All share something vital, he said: "They want to be there. They want to learn."

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Jaquelin Najera already has a sociology degree from the National University of Mexico, and attends Downtown East Education Centre for credits that will qualify her to move on to an advanced degree in Latin American studies.

She said her classmates are often just like her, she said.

"They have a degree in their home country and they can't get a good job because their English is not good enough – they just take any jobs that they can."

After Friday, Ms. Najera said she will probably have to do the same – putting her educational and professional plans on hold, indefinitely.

Emma Price, 39, was a young mother who didn't graduate from high school. She said after 20 years of depression and fear, she made herself walk through the door and start again. She said she now loves school, and for the first time in years, she is "happy to get up in the morning."

Due to cost cutting and consolidation, her school may have to close its doors. She qualifies for free schooling to get her high-school diploma, but she lives in a shelter, and can't afford to make the trip to another centre if the Downtown East Education Centre closes.

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"It's hard for me to start over in a new place," said Ms. Price.

On Monday, Kathy Corrigan, the NDP MLA from Burnaby-Deer Lake, will lead a motion "calling on the government to fully support adult basic education programs as a critical component of job readiness and training."

Editor's note: A photo caption in a previous version of this story included an incorrect spelling of a student at the Downtown East Education Centre. The correct spelling is Jaquelin Najera. The caption also misidentified the centre as the Downtown Eastside Adult Education Centre.

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