VANCOUVER (CUP)—A limited amount of post-secondary funding in B.C. has begun to pit the province’s large research universities and trade schools against one another.

As technical and skills-based programs at schools were given sizeable sums in recent weeks as part of the B.C. Liberals’ Jobs Plan funding rollout, a group representing research universities’ interests across the province fired back.

The Research Universities Council of B.C., representing University of B.C., Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, University of Northern B.C., Royal Roads University, and Thompson Rivers University, recently re-released a report they’d originally publicized back in Oct. 2012. The report shows, based on the government’s own data, that job-market demand for university graduates in B.C. will outstrip supply by 2016.

But the Liberals are still committed to staying the course on their plan to bulk up trade and technical programs at key schools, while giving post-secondary grants across the province an overall $41 million cut by 2014. The NDP opposes this cut, but the party has yet to reveal whether it will prioritize research-based universities or skills-based trade certification programs in its post-secondary platform.

University of Victoria president David H. Turpin says the province needs a variety of education options so young people can choose what path they’ll take to try to obtain employment.

“Trades are valuable, college diplomas are valuable, university degrees are valuable. What’s important is that there be space in the system for every qualified student,” Turpin says. “I’m a firm believer in this being driven by demand.”

And when given a chance to speak at a recent invitation-only event promoting student involvement, UBC president Stephen Toope took a more adversarial stance. He argued that a trade-school education, while helpful for employment, doesn’t help students become versatile and agile leaders.

While the overall cut in operating grants has shrunk the number of funded spaces available at many schools in the province, targeted capital spending has allowed some schools to expand. Emily Carr University of Art and Design was given over $100 million to expand into a new campus in late Jan.

And Thompson Rivers University—a midsize institution that is part of the Research Universities’ Council, but also houses a good number of trade certification programs—was just given $1.39 million specifically for heavy equipment used by trades and technology students.

This shows the shift in priorities as laid out by B.C. Liberal Minister of Advanced Education John Yap when he took over the cabinet post in Sept. 2012 from Naomi Yamamoto.

“Taxpayers invest $5 million each and every single day to support the [B.C. post-secondary] system. The four major research universities—UBC, SFU, UVic, UNBC—receive more than half of the operating grants provided to the 25 institutions,” Yap says.

“We need to make sure that we’re training people for the jobs that need to be filled,” Yap adds.

“We want to ensure that we have a situation where people are looking for jobs, and jobs are looking for people. To try and do better at matching the skills training that is happening to what jobs need to be filled,” he continues, giving a more optimistic spin on the “people without jobs, jobs without people” refrain that’s long been used across the country to describe the frustrations faced by students who don’t pick programs that prepare them for high-demand areas of the job market.

As for the NDP’s take on all of this, advanced education critic Michelle Mungall said the party, if elected, would focus on increasing aid going directly to students across the board, rather than prioritizing either universities or trade schools. Their plan is to introduce a $100 million program of non-refundable grants for students.

“It’s true that universities do get the bulk of post-secondary funding, but they also have the bulk of students,” Mungall says. “The skilled labour shortage, while being felt in the trades most acutely right now, especially up north, is actually across the board. Every single occupation is going to feel that shortage.”

Turpin argues that a significant uptick in funding should be given to schools’ operating budgets, rather than just focussing on affordability for needy students.

“The quality of our programs is going to erode. And that is a long-term problem for the province of British Columbia. Our view is that the investments we’re calling for are truly investments. By generating talented people for society, they’re going to be able to give back through the tax system,” he says.