CUP Ottawa Bureau Chief
While Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP leader Jack Layton told journalists outside the House of Commons on March 22 they were prepared to vote against the document, as the Conservatives remain staunchly opposed to any amendments, several student and post-secondary education representatives down the hall in Centre Block voiced their varied concerns over the proposed budget.
“It’s very underwhelming,” said Dave Molenhuis, national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students. “It fails to address what we were hoping it would, which are the systematic issues of chronic underfunding, higher and higher tuition fees, more in the way of student debt and a lack of non-repayable financial assistance for those who need it most.”
Canadian Alliance of Student Associations national director Zach Dayler agreed more student support could have been present, but appreciated that more attention was paid to part-time students — particularly in the form of allowing them to make up to $100 a week (it was previously $50) without seeing their student loans affected.
“The income work exemption is something we’ve been lobbying on quite a bit — I mean, ideally, that would be $200,” he said.
“But again, we can’t forget that there are a lot of students ”¦ who are maxing out their student loan and they’re turning to private means, so we need to see a fundamental investment in terms of the money that we’re putting into the Canada Student Loans Program,” he continued. “It’s a start, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Molenhuis pointed out that other measures included in the budget for part-time students, such as cutting the interest on loans that part-time student currently have to pay while pursuing studies, aren’t enough to make a significant financial difference.
“If you take a look at what actually will change in the pocketbook of the individuals, it’s pocket change for part-time students — so it’s certainly not a comprehensive strategy to support them,” he said.
Speaking over the phone later in the day, NDP post-secondary education critic and Manitoba MP Niki Ashton emphasized that for student assistance to be more effective, it has to be available before students enter their studies.
“This budget does nothing to [address] tuition fees and invest in post-secondary education in a way that makes education more affordable at the front end,” she said.
“Students are overall — across the board, whether it’s part-time or full-time — struggling to pay for an education, period. And that’s what we need the government to be tackling.”
Perhaps the most highlighted item in the budget that was targeted at students was the government’s pledge to forgive student loans of up to $40,000 for new doctors and $20,000 for new nurses and nurse practitioners who plan to work in rural communities. Molenhuis dismissed the proposal, calling it a “back-ended measure.”
“When it comes to addressing that problem, the doctor shortage, what we need to do is actually help those people from those communities get through the front doors of our medical schools and nursing schools, and the best way to do that is to address the up-front cost issue,” said Molenhuis.
James Knight, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, was one of the few to sing some praises of the budget. Knight explained that the funding that was announced for 30 new Industrial Research Chairs at colleges across the country was a top priority of the ACCC, and also welcomed with open arms new research money specifically set aside for business/college partnerships in research.
“Students at the colleges who are in particular programs will have the opportunity to engage in much more applied research than they do now,” he explained. “We want our graduates to be innovation-literate, and this will help do that.”
The idea of commercializing research on college campuses, however, made others uncomfortable.
“It’s certainly felt that what’s being done here … is to try to over-incentivize the private sector to invest in our public infrastructure and derive all of the intellectual property benefits from it,” said Molenhuis. “It’s deeply concerning.”
While an additional $37 million in annual funding was earmarked for the three federal granting councils, $80 million in new funding was set to be distributed over three years to a pilot project that would bring colleges and small businesses together to collaborate on information and communications technologies projects.
Ashton noted that post-secondary institutions should be given more freedom in establishing their own research agendas.
“Emphasizing the importance of commercialization takes away from the way we ought to be approaching education,” she said.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May also added her voice to the concerns over commercialization, and pointed out another glaring gap in the Conservative budget.
“I’m scandalized that there’s nothing for First Nations education. This was a top priority of the Assembly of First Nations,” she said, adding that not enough was included for general student financial assistance.
“Unless you’re a young person who has just graduated as a doctor or nurse, you’re not going to get tuition or debt relief, and we would have insisted on that,” she said. “Education needs to be accessible and affordable for any Canadian.”
Dayler agreed that the plan to forgive student loans of up to $40,000 for new doctors and $20,000 for new nurses and nurse practitioners who plan to work in rural and First Nations communities came off as unbalanced.
“We’re also providing that debt forgiveness to some of the largest earning income potential students that are out there,” he noted. “The individuals who are in career-based professions will have a slight advantage in terms of paying those [loans] back. I’m not saying it’s a bad investment, but I’d like to see things like that begin to start to creep into every student’s reality.”
The reality now, of course, is that this budget won’t likely come into effect anytime soon. All three opposition parties in the House of Commons have stated their opposition to the document, and while the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois are expected to introduce amendments to the budget on March 24, the Conservatives have made it clear they will not budge on their budget.
The earliest the House of Commons could vote on the proposed amendments is next week — and this Parliament may not exist after this weekend. This Friday, MPs will vote on a Liberal non-confidence motion related to the historic committee report tabled earlier this week that found the government in contempt of Parliament for failing to provide enough financial information on corporate tax cuts, crime prevention and fighter jets. Both Layton and Duceppe have indicated they would support the Liberals’ motion. If all three opposition parties vote in favour, the minority Conservative government will be defeated and an election campaign could begin as early as Saturday.
image: Alex Smyth/The Fulcrum