The Canadian public would like the winner of this month's federal election to increase funding to higher education, according to a poll commissioned by a national student group.
Despite the key issues of universal health care and income-tax relief dominating the campaign rhetoric, the vulnerable state of higher education remains a public concern. When asked directly about post-secondary education and training, 76 per cent of the 1,500 respondents to an Ipsos-Reid poll said they believed the federal government should spend more than it does now, compared with 19 per cent who believed they should spend the same and 4 per cent who wanted lower spending.
The poll, commissioned by the Canadian Federation of Students just before the election was called, revealed that most respondents perceive that the Liberal government invests inadequately in its universities. Many respondents also feel it must lower rising student debts with more grants and work to establish national standards in the wake of regionally divergent tuition fees.
The Liberals are expected to win a third mandate on November . When they came to power in 1993, they began across-the-board funding cuts to reduce an inherited deficit, including a C$5.2 billion (£2.3 billion) cut in post-secondary education funding. This had a domino effect of more than doubling the average tuition fee and raising student debt to an estimated average of C$25,000. One candidate for the Conservative Party has a C$40,000 student debt.
National standards are being called for as access to public universities is becoming a financial issue in certain provinces - a medical degree in Ontario can cost C$10,000 a year more than one in British Columbia.
Since the government began running budget surpluses, some new spending has gone to research. But in a recent economic statement, all new spending was dwarfed by cuts in personal income tax. During the campaign so far, the Liberals have mostly discussed education in general terms, referring to a new knowledge economy.
Nevertheless, the party has committed itself to doubling expenditure on research and development through direct funding and tax breaks. It is also promising C$2 billion for registered savings plans and other loan enhancements in the next five years.
Aside from commissioning the poll, the federation graded the parties and gave the front-running Liberals a D, with the second-place Alliance Party earning an F. Alliance has only one line in its platform on higher education, which promises to help relieve student debt through the much-maligned system of income-contingent loans.
The left-leaning New Democratic Party scored the highest grade but is expected to re-elect only a handful of MPs. The NDP was the only party to react to the poll. Its post-secondary education spokesman, Libby Davies, said that it showed the government had its priorities wrong. She called for an immediate freeze on tuition fees, a national grants programme and a restoration of federal funding for post-secondary education.
"In the past seven years, the federal Liberals have let Canada's tuition fees rise to the third highest level in the industrialised world, making post-secondary education unaffordable for many young people," she said in a press release.