Academy seeks cash and commitment as Canada heads to the poll

As Canada prepares for its fourth general election in seven years, its university sector is doing its utmost to ensure that higher education is a key priority for the main parties.

May 1, 2011

The Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada recently launched a “Universities Matter” election website. It calls for all parties to commit to three central policies: increasing funding for scholarships and research, support for an international marketing effort for Canadian higher education and improving widening-participation funding, particularly for the Aboriginal community.

“There are priorities that Canadians agree on and which all candidates and parties should commit to as part of their proposals for moving Canada forward,” said Paul Davidson, president of the AUCC, ahead of the parliamentary election on 2 May.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has also been working to ensure that post-secondary education has been a high-profile issue throughout the election.

The association is not expressly endorsing any party, according to James Turk, the executive director of CAUT.

However, Mr Turk said that the union had concerns with the provisions for higher education put forward in the Conservative budget whose rejection in Parliament in March defeated the minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper and forced an election.

“The Conservatives again took a piecemeal approach to education and research that sidesteps the real needs of the sector,” he writes in The CAUT Bulletin, the union’s official newsletter.

“The small increase in research funding does not fully cover inflation, let alone restore the cuts made to the granting councils in the 2009 budget.”

Where the parties stand on the key issues:

  • Internationalisation

The Conservative budget contained a C$10 million (£6.3 million) investment for the development and implementation of an international education strategy.

The party also promised to invest a further C$10 million to assist Canadian students who wish to study abroad.

The opposition Liberal Party has said that it will “support opportunities” for Canadian students to study abroad and that it will make learning a key plank of a “Branding Canada” initiative, but has not yet indicated how much money it would be willing to commit to such ventures.

Neither the separatist Bloc Québécois nor the left-wing New Democratic Party, the other two parties holding seats in the previous Parliament, has made any explicit promises in its manifesto (known in Canada as a “platform”) about international education.

Nor has the Green Party, which had no sitting members of Parliament at dissolution, made any promises in this regard.

  • Research

The Conservative budget included the creation of 10 Canada Excellence Research Chairs as well as pledging funding of up to C$100 million for Canadian neuroscience; C$65 million for Genome Canada, the national funding body for large-scale genomics and proteomics research projects; C$35 million for climate research and C$50 million over the next five years for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Although it is not mentioned in the party’s platform, the budget also committed to an additional C$37 million per year to support the three federal research councils.

The Liberal Party has stressed the importance of basic research and says in its platform that it intends to increase investment in this area as the country’s finances improve.

Three “champion sectors” have been named as the focus of the Liberals’ innovation strategy: clean energy; health and biosciences; and digital technologies.

The Bloc Québécois’ research priority is more federal funding for scientific research in Quebec, particularly in the areas of pharmaceuticals and aerospace.

The New Democratic Party has not mentioned any specific funding plans for the three federally funded research councils.

The Green Party has promised to increase funding to the three research grant councils by 15 per cent annually over the next four years. The Greens have also expressed a wish to cut all research funding for Atomic Energy Canada and projects involving genetically modified organisms.

Instead, the party advocates more research related to environmental issues, and it intends to establish a research programme investigating the barriers to university education in Canada.

  • Students

The Conservative Party has promised more provision for part-time students in the Canada Student Loan Program, which offers low-cost loans to higher education students in most provinces and territories. It has also committed to supporting research partnerships involving students.

The Liberal Party has unveiled a plan for access to higher education, which it says in its platform works on the principle: “If you get the grades, you get to go”.

The plan will set aside C$1,000 a year over four years for every high school student in Canada to use for a university education. The grant rises to $1,500 for those from lower-income families.

The party also plans to set up a Veterans’ Learning Benefit, similar to the GI Bill in the US, which would allow veterans of Canada’s armed forces to benefit from a free or heavily subsidised university education.

The Bloc Québécois demands that the federal government transfer to Quebec any savings in the student financial aid programmes made because of the province’s significantly lower tuition fees. The Bloc also wants student scholarships and bursaries to be made exempt from federal income tax.

The New Democratic Party has said it will increase transfers to the provinces – which provide block grants to universities – by C$800 million annually in a bid to reduce tuition fees. It also promises to increase funding by C$200 million a year for the Canada Student Grants Program, which offers non-refundable bursaries to low- and middle-income post-secondary students nationwide.

The Green Party has called for a needs-based student loan and bursary system, and has pledged C$400 million in its platform for funds for such a scheme, with the overall goal of eliminating student debt.

The party also argues that all students should be eligible for student loans to cover tuition costs regardless of parental income. It has also called for an “Opportunity Grant” to be created for postgraduate students facing financial difficulties.

3 May update

The Conservative Party has won a majority of seats in the Canadian general election and will return to power with overall control of the country’s House of Commons, according to provisional results.

Early indications released by the official body Elections Canada showed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s party was ahead in 167 of the country’s 308 electoral districts after gaining around 40 per cent of the vote.

The provisional results showed that the left-wing New Democratic Party was in second place with 102 seats and 31 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals were trailing in third with 34 seats and 19 per cent.

The separatist Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, was on course for heavy losses, with the provisional results showing it ahead in only four seats out of the 47 it held before.

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