HIGHER YEARNING: So many Surrey students, not enough seats

Surrey’s universities are working hard to create more spaces for students in B.C.’s fastest growing city

Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus.

Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus.

Many students who want to study in Surrey are turned away because of the “historically low levels” of access to post-secondary education in the region. Find out what Surrey’s universities are doing to create more spaces for students in B.C.’s fastest growing city.

Can Surrey’s universities keep up with the needs of local students into the foreseeable future?

One need not be a genius, or academically inclined, to have noticed the dizzying growth this city continues to experience.

Simply driving across Surrey presents a substantial road trip thanks to fender-to-bumper traffic. Grocery store aisles have become daunting gauntlets and vast fields of row houses now carpet local hills. Forget about seeing a star-pocked sky.

This past weekend, Surrey Archives held a public talk highlighting Surrey’s history between 1930 and 1979, when its population grew from about 8,000 residents to more than 100,000.

By the 1990s, that more than doubled. The 2016 census put us at 517,887, and the most current estimates project Surrey’s population to reach 816,650 by 2046. By that time, roughly one-quarter of Metro Vancouver’s residents will be living in Surrey.

A 2012 report published by the Surrey Board of Trade asked, in its title, “Can the future learn in Surrey and in the South Fraser?”

It noted that, at that time, Surrey and other communities in the South Fraser Region were home to 22 per cent of the province’s high school graduates but had “much less access” to colleges and universities than students in the rest of B.C.

The report found Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University combined offered 12.7 post-secondary spaces for every 100 people aged 18-24 in the region while the rest of B.C. enjoyed almost four times that, with a ratio of 48.7:100.

The SBOT’s report noted that many residents south of the Fraser River have had to commute north of the river to pursue a post-secondary education on account of the region’s “historically low levels of access” to programs that offer degrees, diplomas and trade certifications, resulting in “particularly difficult” access for lower-income families.

Because of the limited number of post-secondary spaces available south of the Fraser, the 2012 report found, “more and more” students were being turned away as SFU raised its admissions criteria, as did KPU for some of its programs.

Ultimately, the SBOT’s report concluded it is “imperative that the level of access to post-secondary education in Surrey and the South Fraser region be brought up to the level provided to the rest of B.C.” and “such an increase is crucial for the region’s and the province’s development.”

So, where does that leave Surrey in 2017?

In January, SFU President and Vice-Chancellor Andrew Petter told a Surrey Board of Trade luncheon that Metro Vancouver “suffers the third-lowest labour productivity in North America.

“Our educational deficit does not result from a shortage of qualified university candidates,” Petter said. “Even as employers go begging for university graduates, B.C.’s world-class universities are turning away prospective students with the capacity to flourish.”

Petter noted that a Conference Board of Canada report found that more than 120,000 British Columbians are unemployed “because they lack access to relevant post-secondary education.

“And let me say, it’s heartbreaking to turn away good students,” he added.

Given the limited number of funded student spaces, Petter explained, competition has become “so stiff” that over the past six years SFU’s average entrance grade point average rose from 81 per cent to 87 per cent “and in some high-demand programs, entrance GPAs have risen by over 10 per cent.

“That means we’re telling thousands of qualified high school graduates that we don’t have room for them in the programs they want — programs that would give them the skills employers need,” Petter lamented. “This problem is particularly acute here in Surrey.”

Petter observed that while Surrey is B.C.’s fastest growing city with one of the highest youth populations in Canada, it also has the fewest post-secondary seats per capita of any jurisdiction in Metro Vancouver.

“That’s the bad news.”

Still, SFU and Kwantlen are working to close that gap through expansion. Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal and provincial governments will pitch in a combined $90 million toward expanding SFU’s technology program, featuring a $126 million five-storey building that will be built across from the city’s library.

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(Photo rendering of SFU Surrey’s expansion plans.)

The remaining $36 million will come from private donors and SFU itself. The 15,000 square-metre building will house Western Canada’s first energy systems and environmental engineering program, building on SFU scholars’ research into fuel cell technologies, big data analytics and alternative energy.

Kwantlen President and Vice-Chancellor Alan Davis told the Now that KPU is “poised to expand into the heart of Surrey City Centre” with a fifth campus — KPU Civic Plaza — in January 2018. The campus will be anchored by KPU’s School of Business.

“Some of our post-baccalaureate options will include Operations and Supply Chain Management, Technical Management and Services, and Accounting, with a path to gaining a CPA designation,” Davis said. “Courses offered will focus on working professionals looking to gain new credentials and knowledge to accelerate their careers, and on the needs of the local business community for enhanced professional development and assessment opportunities.”

Taking the region’s growth and labour market requirements into account, Davis said, he estimates KPU “needs an additional 2,500 seats over the next five years, and we have shared this with our stakeholders. These seats would help address student wait-lists.”

Davis noted that in 2015, 28 per cent of KPU’s students “reported not being able to get into at least one class because it was full.”

That said, he also pointed out that even with a seat shortfall, attending a university outside this region “is sometimes a matter of choice rather than necessity.

“It’s true that Surrey lacks certain programs that are only delivered north of the Fraser, such as engineering, law, education and medicine, however, students can start these studies at KPU and finish their degrees outside the region, and many do.”

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(Photo rendering of KPU’s expansion plans in City Centre.)

And then, there’s the government. Of course, the provincial Liberal government’s Budget 2017 could be moot depending on the outcome of the May 9 general election. Still, does it contain good news for post-secondary students and schools?

“Although only 19 per cent of out students report taking out government loans in order to pay for their education, we are pleased the provincial government is increasing the affordability of and access to post-secondary education by reducing the interest rate on BC Student Loans to prime,” Davis said. “We are thrilled to receive capital funding for infrastructure improvements,” he added.

Meantime Dave Hayer, who served as Liberal MLA for Surrey-Tynehead from May 2001 to May 2013, continues to lobby his former colleagues to make good on a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding the provincial Liberal government signed with SFU to double the number of full-time equivalent seats at SFU Surrey by 2015.

“It wasn’t fulfilled,” Hayer told the Now.  He suspects the recession of 2008-09 ensured “everything got delayed.”

Hayer has lobbied Liberal MLAs, including the ministers of finance and advanced education for action.

“They said they are looking at it,” he said.

“The same commitment should be from the NDP too. We need to make sure Surrey gets treated fairly.”

Joanne Curry, vice-president of external relations for SFU, said the expansion of its Surrey campus “is our top growth priority and we remain committed to the plan contemplated in the 2006 MOU.”

One in three Surrey residents are under age 19 and the Surrey School district is the largest in the province with close to a third of the Lower Mainland’s Grade 12 enrolments, Curry noted.

“Since opening in 2002, SFU’s Surrey Campus has tried to cope with demand with no new space or operating funds serving 26 per cent more full-time equivalent students than the 2,437 for which it is funded,” Curry said. “This has implications to programs and services for students and faculty.”

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman said a “new iteration of the MOU” needs to be focused on to move forward.

“There are 940,000 people in Surrey and the South Fraser region, the largest and fastest-growing region of B.C.,” Huberman said. “We produce 22 per cent of BC’s high school graduates. However, Surrey students have much less access to post-secondary institutions than students in the rest of B.C.”

Huberman said the Surrey Board of Trade is concerned about “more and more” students being turned away because of the limited number of post-secondary spaces in this region.

“It is imperative that the level of access to post-secondary education in Surrey and the South Fraser Region be brought up to the level provided to the rest of B.C.,” she said.

tom.zytaruk@thenownewspaper.com