Brendan Kergin, News Editor Ω
Editor’s Note: This week Nelson/Creston MLA Michelle Mungall was on the TRU campus, and our own Brendan Kergin sat down to find out why — and perhaps more importantly, who she is and what she does.
Omega: “So, who are you?”
Mungall: “I’m Michelle Mungall. I’m the MLA for Nelson-Creston and the critic for advanced education, labour and market development and youth. There’s a lot of syllables in my introduction.
O: “How long have you been an MLA? ”
M: “I was elected in 2009. I was a city councillor from 2002 and served one term to 2005. Then I didn’t run again and went to Africa. Came back and got involved.”
O: “Why are you the AE critic?”
M: ”Adrian (Dix, leader of the B.C. NDP) appointed me when he became leader of the NDP in April. He gave me the position since I was deputy critic prior to this with the same portfolio but it didn’t have youth in the title. It was a very limited role as a deputy critic so he gave me the full position starting with the last session in May.”
O: “Who was there before you?”
M: “Dawn Black. She is now the assistant deputy speaker of the house.”
O: “Where is B.C.’s advanced education sector strong and where is it weak, and where do you think it might grow in to fill future needs?”
M: “Well we have tremendous potential with our public institutions. They are all doing incredible work on very lean budgets, so we get the biggest bang for our dollar out of our public post-secondary institutions and we need to support them in their success. I think there is more that we can be doing as a province and we need to be collaborating with the institutions on that. Where we’re weak is I think the most notable thing that students are bringing up as well as faculty and administration is the affordability levels. This province has one of the highest debt loads in the country and the highest outside of the Maritimes. We have the highest interest rate on student loans, the lowest number of financial need-based grants. We are doing a very poor job on the affordability levels as has been noted and there’s a lot that can be done to really reverse that. One of the things that we’ve proposed is the elimination of interest rates from student grants, so moving us from last to leader in this country and increasing financial need-based grants by $100 million, so essentially restoring and adding on to what we’ve had in the past which would have tremendous impact on the affordability rates for people of lower and middle income.”
O: “How do you think the Liberals have done so far? Have you looked at how Gordon Campbell’s era did? What about under Christy Clark?”
M: “Well, the reason we’re in the affordability crisis that we’re in right now is because of policies that directly came out of Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark when she was in the cabinet (Clark was Minister of Education and Deputy Premier of B.C. between 2001 and 2004. For a short period she was also Minister of Children and Family Development). That was when they deregulated tuition in 2001 and it just skyrocketed at that time and because they also decreased funding for post-secondary institutions. Their legacy is what we experience right now which is the crisis in affordability. There is no commitment to change that. That was clear with the announcement of the new jobs plan. There’s nothing to address affordability rates for post-secondary students. They touched on international education and really validated what institutions like TRU have been doing on international education and put forward a great goal, but no way to actually make that goal happen in a meaningful way. Essentially they announced another committee for a committee.
O: “So you’re proposing the $100 million growth in the grant system? Are you considering any other student debt solutions?”
M “I think a really important area that doesn’t impact TRU directly but absolutely does indirectly is how our private post-secondary system is managed. I think there’s a need to create greater accountability in that system. Right now it’s a little bit of a wild west situation where students are routinely defrauded by private schools that even are accredited by the Private Career Training Institutions Association. It’s a self-regulating board. We’re the only province in all of Canada to allow private post-secondary to self-regulate. Consequently a few bad apples are ruining the whole box. It’s a real problem and it’s having a negative impact on our international brand. We’ve received letters from Chinese and Indian consulates about our ESL programs, which aren’t even regulated. There’s not even self-regulation for private ESL programs where students are finishing these programs without the credentials they’ve been promised. That’s a huge problem having a negative impact and to maintain B.C. as a competitive brand in international education we have to deal with that.”
O: “One option for funding for universities is the corporate dollar. Do you see that as a good thing for the universities since they receive more funding or do you see that as a bad thing because there’s more of a corporate influence? And do you think the corporate influence is being regulated enough?”
M: “I think universities provide a really great avenue for some tremendous philanthropic work for some of the major corporate entities in our community. I think corporations also have a responsibility to contribute to post-secondary education via their taxation as well and they need to maintain their fair share of taxes and that’s not happening in B.C. at all. In 2009 students paid more in tuition than corporations paid in taxes and that’s a problem. When corporations make donations to universities I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it becomes a bad thing when institutions rely so heavily on those corporate donations that they’re willing to sacrifice the allowance for critical analysis at universities of corporate activities. When they sacrifice that in effort for donations, that’s when it does become a problem. I haven’t seen that at all in this province, but we don’t want to get there. That’s why affordability and funding are so critical.”
O: “Have you looked at the European system, like in Germany or Denmark? Do you see that being anywhere in Canada or B.C.’s future?”
M: “I haven’t looked at the systems extensively. I’ve been doing more of a cross-provincial analysis, a comparative analysis within Canada itself. That’s who we are compared with. All provinces are in the same federal system we are in and so that’s where I’ve been looking at mostly. What’s going on in other Canadian jurisdictions to answer some of the questions I have on what we can do here.”
O: “With the HST being repealed how will that affect students?”
M: “I think first off with the HST it’s important to remember it wasn’t a black and white issue, there were a lot of shades of grey in there. At the end of the day you have to decide: is efficiency more important than fairness and equity? To me equity is one of the things we strive for as a society. If we are going to strive for that we have to create a tax system which is fair and equitable and the HST doesn’t deliver on that. And I can get into a whole story about value-added taxes and when it can be enhanced. It will never really enhance equity, but it doesn’t become a detriment to equity and in our system that wasn’t really the case. So with the HST being repealed that $350-$500, depending on which analysis you look at, will be money directly back into student’s pockets who are often people who are living in the lowest income bracket. That money back in their pockets means they have a little bit more extra for food, books, rent, to pay the bills. So less in a desperate situation financially and I think that’s really critical and I think it will absolutely benefit students.”
O: “Have you been working with the Canadian Federation of Students? How has that gone?”
M: “It’s been great. Yes, I work with all student unions and student associations across the province. They are the democratically-elected organizations to represent the students on their campus so they provide an invaluable look at what’s going on on the ground in post-secondary education. Particularly with TRUSU, their information packages and the way they present to politicians on both sides of the house I have to say is commendable. They’re doing a fabulous job and not just as the critic but a former member of the finance committee who had their presentations every year in the budget consultations process and they did one of the more exceptional jobs of the 3000 people who did it. I really enjoy that working relationship.
O: “Which comes first to you, your constituents in Nelson-Creston or the students you help as critic for advanced education?”
M: “I don’t think you can separate the two. I don’t think it’s different. At the end of the day I have to be responsible to Nelson-Creston, they are my direct employers, they are the people who elect me and I take that very seriously, but I have Selkirk College in my region and the students there face the same issues as students anywhere else in the province and I can’t separate those two at all.”
O: “OK, thanks for your time, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.”
M: “No problem, thanks for the conversation.”