Vancouver Island University takes lead role in accessible education
By Patrick Vaillancourt, News Editor
Administrators at Vancouver Island University (VIU) have announced plans to waive tuition fees for students who have previously been wards of the provincial government, starting in September 2013.
The program is accessible to students who have been permanent wards of the province, a small percentage of the total number of youth in British Columbia’s child protection system. There are approximately 4,300 youth in BC who have been raised under a “continuing care order,” which is the legal term for youth in permanent government care.
Janina Stajic, a spokesperson for VIU, insists that the university has not budgeted for the program, but is “waiting to see what the response is going to be.”
VIU is the first BC post-secondary institution to offer this waiver, and follows similar efforts implemented at the University of Winnipeg and the public post-secondary system in Ontario. Some US states—specifically Utah, Texas, Oregon, Florida, and Arizona—already offer some assistance to young people formerly in government care.
“VIU is proud to be the first university in BC to offer tuition waivers to qualifying youth in care,” says Dr. Ralph Nilson, VIU’s President and Vice Chancellor. “It’s critical that academic institutions take the lead on initiatives like this—initiatives aimed at ensuring as many people as possible can access post-secondary education and all of the opportunities, including employment opportunities, that are created through that experience.”
The provincial government supports the VIU initiative to increase access to post-secondary studies for youth in care and will be providing some financial support to ensure the continued viability of the program.
BC Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk encourages all “public post-secondary institutions to follow in [VIU’s] footsteps.”
Groups representing the interests of youth in foster care or the government system strongly support the initiative implemented by VIU, and hope that other post-secondary institutions across the province follow suit.
Lisa Mickleborough, the communications and project coordinator for the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks, was unavailable for comment at press time, but stated in an email that the tuition waiver was “wonderful news.”
A study from the University of Victoria showed that “While the majority of youth in BC complete high school, less than half of the youth in this study [“When Youth Age Out of Care—Where to from There?”] had finished high school by age 20 or 21.” Even fewer go on to post-secondary studies. The provincial government offers grants through the Youth Education Assistance Fund (YEAF), which allows wards of the province to access $5,500 per year for up to four years to assist with expenses associated with post-secondary education. The BC Ministry of Children and Family Development states that they dole out approximately 300 grants per year, but does not collect data on whether these students actually graduate from their post-secondary program.
VIU says that the program is an important first step to improving their regional economy. “Many families in the regions VIU serves live below the poverty line,” says a VIU statement. The university believes that this program will increase access to education for approximately 900 youth, the majority of which are Aboriginal youth in care.