We must save Vancouver Community College and public adult education

Like many Vancouverites, I owe a sincere debt of gratitude to VCC.

I wrote my first lines of HTML code in a VCC classroom, allowing me to upgrade from print-focused graphics to remain successfully self-employed and engaged in newly emerging world of web design. During my lean years, the meat and baked goods shops at the downtown campus—serving deep discounted butchery and bakery student works—kept me well fed when I couldn't afford much else. My wife successfully transitioned into a productive career thanks to the affordable and specialized skills upgrading she received at VCC almost twenty years ago.

I have dozens, probably dozens of dozens of friends who have built careers and lives thanks to job-ready instruction in everything from auto mechanics to hair styling, culinary arts to music production, and health sciences to graphic design. Of course there are also the core, less specialized offerings: high school equivalency programs and English as a second language that have helped to integrate new Canadians, and prepare people for advanced training and schooling. For many years, the downtown VCC campus was one of the first points of contact for new Canadians struggling with language and poverty barriers in the DTES.

With over one hundred degree, certificate, and diploma courses and some 22,000 students annually, VCC boasts an astonishing success rate: 93 percent of students are employed on graduation. For fifty years, VCC have been providing affordable services and education right here in East Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside.

Despite the value VCC provides though, quietly the B.C. Liberal government have been laying off staff, making drastic cuts to core funding, replacing the board of governors, and removing 70 percent of VCC's ESL seats. We've already lost the free ESL and adult upgrading courses that have allowed many of our city's most vulnerable populations to improve their lives and employment prospects.

It's no secret that under our current provincial government, public education is under attack. Nowhere is that more apparent than here in East Van—where provincial ministry enrollment demands threaten to close primary and secondary schools, and a strangled budget has already led to clawbacks and closures of VSB adult education and ESL programs.

Provincially-funded VCC is the only community college in East Vancouver and between its downtown and Broadway campuses, 25 percent of their students are upgrading their language skills to better integrate with our labour market. The majority of VCC students are new Canadians, and fully three quarters are women.

At one point VCC ran the largest ESL program in Western Canada—so perhaps it's no coincidence that the growth of the lucrative and under-regulated private language school market has coincided with the reduction in funding for these same yet considerably more affordable or formerly free programs at VCC.

The bleeding of VCC over the last year has included staff lay-offs, cuts to the operating budget, review of programs with a mind to cuts or closure, a freeze in capital budget programs, and rumours of selling off and redevelopment the Downtown Eastside location. On September 16, the Save Our VCC coalition launched an off-campus community outreach to inform Vancouverites of exactly what's at stake for affordable and public adult education in East Van: the quiet death of a thousand cuts.

It is critical that we provide surety and confidence for present and future students of this vital and venerable institution. Let's move the conversation out of the backrooms and have a full open and transparent conversation about the future of Vancouver Community College.

— Originally Published in The Georgia Straight