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Public institutions offering adult language-training classes have been in discussions about program reductions and revenue options

Thousands of ESL students in B.C. are facing uncertainty as public postsecondary schools struggle to avoid course cancellations and instructor layoffs next year in the face of government funding cuts.

Over the summer, public institutions offering adult ESL classes have been in discussions about program reductions and revenue options amid a scuffle between the federal and provincial governments over funding for English-language training.

Two years ago, the Conservatives announced they would axe an immigration agreement with the B.C. government. Under the agreement, which expired in April, the federal government committed $22-million in annual funding administered through the province for ESL programs.

The B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education has pledged about $17-million in one-time funding this school year to move institutions into a model where it says Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) would regulate ESL programs as part of settlement services.

Nearly $8-million of the province's funding went to Vancouver Community College (VCC), B.C.'s largest provider of ESL services, training nearly half of the province's 9,000 adult ESL students. But the money won't be enough to sustain its programs past 2015, prompting the school to cancel a range of courses that would have been offered next year. The federally funded LINC program for basic English instruction will continue to be offered at the college, but only to permanent residents who aren't citizens.

When Morez Mostafavi came to Canada three years ago, he had a master's degree in architecture from Iran but could speak very little English. Between part-time jobs, Mr. Mostafavi, now 40, has been taking ESL classes at Vancouver Community College in hopes of finding work in the LNG sector. His progress will be cut short after the fall semester, when the college is set to cancel its ESL programs and lay off 70 instructors.

"I'm concerned about my future because before that I thought, okay, in this program I can finish my Grade 12 and go through the other process, but right now, I don't know what should I do," Mr. Mostafavi said.

Uncertainty about future ESL funding is also causing concern at other B.C. postsecondary institutions, including Camosun College and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where cutbacks and layoffs haven't been ruled out.

Administrators at Camosun College are considering other ways to offer ESL to domestic students. One option is to have them share classroom space with international students, who pay $5,000 in tuition a semester for ESL. Another is to look at which parts of the domestic program could be delivered with tuition-fee revenue.

In any scenario, according to the college's vice-president (academic), John Boraas, "if the governments continue down the path of withdrawing funding for ESL, we would need to charge tuition for domestic students. It would be at a level that is different from international students."

In a statement, B.C. Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk said the federal government's decision to cancel its funding commitment "prompted a major change to the delivery of ESL programs at many public postsecondary institutions." He said his ministry is exploring options with affected institutions "to determine if they can continue to offer some level of ESL beyond 2014/15."

The CIC gave a statement via e-mail saying it issued a five-week call for proposals last year for B.C. organizations looking to deliver federally funded settlement services "that can best provide newcomers with the services they need, such as language training and career counselling, for the best value for taxpayers' dollars."

Cuts to ESL funding in B.C. and layoffs at Vancouver Community College have sparked protests and an ESL Matters campaign earlier this year.

Karen Shortt, president of the VCC's faculty association, said it's up to the B.C. government to pick up the cost of ESL education as other provinces have. "It's quite a shock," she said. "It's going to be huge across this economy when all these people are stalled and not able to get any jobs because this province won't do what they're mandated to do, which is train adults."

About 3,000 ESL students are enrolled per term at VCC. The majority of them are permanent residents and citizens. Many have children and are looking to improve their English for a better life in Canada and a career related to their foreign training.

Colleen van Winkel, who has been on staff at the college for 33 years and hasn't received a layoff notice, said more than 700 ESL students enrolled in January weren't able to return to classes in April. Of those students, 23 per cent were citizens and therefore not eligible for the federally funded LINC program.

"A number of them don't really know where to go," she said. "We've had this huge program for so many years, filling all these different kinds of needs – English for work, for academic purposes, and literacy programs – and that's just not going to be around."