Dave Secko decided to pursue his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of British Columbia so that he could take advantage of the province's tuition fees, which are currently second lowest in the country. He's not alone. Enrollment at British Columbia (BC) universities has increased more than 30% over the last decade, with the most dramatic increase occurring since 1996, when the previous provincial government passed tuition freeze legislation. Over the same 10 years, though, provincial grants to the universities--which account for 70% of their general operating budgets--have grown by little more than 10%, resulting in degrading facilities and marked increases in the size of classes.

All this may be about to change. The BC government announced last week that it plans to fully deregulate university and college tuition fees in the province. This announcement is just the latest in a string of postelection announcements intended to limit the province's $4.4 billion budget deficit that has left stunned residents wondering what has hit them.

In her throne speech, Lieutenant-Governor Iona Campagnolo stated that the BC government "will allow postsecondary institutions to make their own decisions about their tuition fee levels," and that this was intended to "restore greater autonomy to the institutions themselves, because they should be directly accountable to the students and communities they serve."

Students and faculty members were quick to condemn the decision. "I came to BC because lower fees here made it affordable for me to pursue a graduate degree and I'd hate to think that others will not have that option in the future," says Secko.

After they were elected in June last year, the BC Liberals began consultations with students, educators, and administrators regarding the 1996 tuition fee freeze. According to Darwyn Coxson, president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia and a professor in the department of biology at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), "The consultation period left faculty and students suspecting that the government was intending to lift the existing freeze on tuition levels, and were perhaps even planning to replace the freeze with a higher cap. But no one was expecting deregulation to this extent."

"One of the main problems in BC right now is that the government is taking major action on innumerable fronts, so there is a sort of numbness on the part of the public," says Coxson. For instance, on 17 January undergraduate students learned that the government was cutting the Student Summer Works, Work Study, and Youth Community Action programs--programs that enabled businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and campuses to hire 10,000 students who wished to learn new skills, or who simply needed the extra money to cover living expenses. The government also eliminated the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission, a joint project of government, postsecondary institutions, and the private sector, with the private sector now carrying full responsibility for apprenticeship programs in the province. And then on 28 January, the government passed Bill C-28--the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act--which gives colleges in BC the right to increase class sizes at their discretion and which, Coxson states, can only exacerbate existing overcrowding at BC universities.

But these are small potatoes in comparison to BC government's announcement that it intends to freeze all postsecondary education funding at the current level for the next 3 years. According to Coxson, the freeze--which includes funding to colleges and universities, as well as to student financial aid--will translate to a 5% cut in the purchasing power on the part of universities due to inflation. "Increases in tuition, no matter how great, are not likely to cover the shortfall." The government's freeze of funding for student financial aid programs will likely prevent universities from raising stipends as they try to compensate for increasing tuition.

With the province's higher education in an apparent state of decay, the recruitment and retention of new faculty is becoming increasingly difficult. The University Presidents' Council of British Columbia estimates that to increase competitiveness and to deal with an anticipated wave of retirements, approximately 3700 new faculty members will be required in the next decade. And that's assuming existing faculty will stick around.

Apparently, they are not. "At our institution we have seen quite a few faculty take other positions both in other parts of Canada and in the U.S., and it is becoming harder to replace those faculty," Coxson claims. "The UNBC Faculty Association did a survey on recruitment and retention about a year ago, and quality of life was a significant factor in bringing people here. But after they have been here for 4 to 5 years, career advancement emerges as a more important issue."

The anticipated higher graduate tuition fees will also make it hard to recruit Ph.D. students and to persuade them to stay in academia. As debt loads increase, says Secko, "a higher paying job in industry is much more attractive than the small increase in income that comes with many postdoctoral positions at a university."

The decision to allow universities to raise tuition fees is receiving some support, however. UBC graduate student Joseph McPhee hopes that the added income for the university will improve the quality of instruction for undergraduate students, who have until now been "short-changed" in his opinion. "Lab courses in my department were severely cut 2 years ago, with about 800 students losing the chance to do a microbiology lab." The cuts also resulted in a reduced number of teaching assistantships available to graduate students. "These spots represented both a source of income for students as well as experience for those considering academic positions, where teaching experience would be evaluated." McPhee holds out some hope that increases in tuition will lead to at least a partial restoration of these courses as well as upgrading of laboratory facilities, for the benefit of all concerned.

That's not how Secko sees it. Because graduate tuition will rise as well, Secko's concerned that grad students will have to spend more time away from the bench in teaching assistant positions to cover their increased expenses, potentially extending the time it takes to complete their degree requirements. He adds that deciding whether or not a higher degree is worth the investment has always been difficult for students, and he worries that the additional load of undergraduate debt will present a barrier to many students who might otherwise want to pursue postgraduate degrees.