COLUMN: A lot to offer elsewhere

Embattled MLA Amrik Virk should be shifted to another cabinet post

Surrey-Tynehead MLA Amrik Virk, who is also the minister of advanced education, simply can’t shake his pursuers.

Opposition critics have dogged him for months over his actions while a member of the Kwantlen Polytechnic University board of directors. Those actions centred around extra payments to try and entice top people to come to work for the university, including current president Alan Davis.

Word is now coming out that Virk was directly involved in the discussions by the Kwantlen board in 2011 as to how to get around the provincial salary guidelines. An email exchange involving Virk was revealed by the NDP on Monday.

He and other members of the board were trying to get around guidelines set by the province, to try to keep salary spending at post-secondary institutions in check.

An earlier internal investigation by assistant deputy minister Rob Mingay determined board members were not involved in decisions to pay executives more than provincial rules allowed. The email seems to contradict that finding.

Virk said he had forgotten about the email. Finance Minister Mike de Jong has now asked Mingay to reopen the investigation.

Given the fact that Virk is now the minister in charge of advanced education, and ultimately the enforcer of salary guidelines, his hold on his portfolio is shaky at best.

Virk was a longtime member of the RCMP before getting elected in 2013. He is a rookie politician. He was very active in the community, serving on the boards of Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation and Kwantlen.

He has a long track record as a contributing member of the community, but his actions while serving in a volunteer capacity as a director are a real problem, given the position he now holds. In politics, it’s more often the perception that counts, rather than the actual facts.

Kwantlen’s position in the overall university hierarchy is a part of this story.

It is not at the level of B.C.’s first-rank universities, University of B.C., Simon Fraser or University of Victoria. Its emphasis on trades and technical training make it unique, but it also offers many courses and programs that compete with other post-secondary institutions.

It is in a competition with other institutions for students and faculty.

There has been a fair bit of turnover (and some staff turmoil, which is the subject of a lawsuit) in the president’s office in the past 10 years. There have been other controversies, notably involving the student society.

The guidelines set by the province only put the university in an even more challenging position. It was having a tough time recruiting senior administrators and faculty members when the guidelines meant that the people they were considering would have to take pay cuts to come to Kwantlen.

Perhaps what the whole situation illustrates is the folly of imposing guidelines on a provincial basis. There is little flexibility offered to a specific institution. A better approach could be to set overall budget caps.

Alternatively, the province could backtrack on former premier Gordon Campbell’s commitment to turn most community colleges into universities, but it will be very hard to get that horse back into the barn.

Given that the provincial government is in part at fault for how this whole scenario unfolded, the best option for Premier Christy Clark, who is the ultimate decider, would be to move Virk to another portfolio.

He still has a lot to offer to cabinet.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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