CANADA'S three national education groups are working hard to read the entrails of the federal election speeches and find some mention of higher education in a campaign dominated by national unity and cost-cutting.
On Monday, after a five-week campaign, Canadians will go to the polls in an election called by a government which was just three years into a five-year possible mandate. The latest polls show Jean Chretien's Liberals will probably convince an increasingly regionalised country that it has what it takes to form a majority government.
With an unemployment rate of 9.6 per cent (17 per cent for youth aged 15 to 24), job creation has been the main issue on the minds of the electorate. Unemployment has been such an embarrassment for the government, which chooses instead to tout its record on deficit-reduction, that most believe they chose the date of the election because it falls just before the latest official jobless figures are to be released.
It has only been a year and a half since Quebec voted with the slightest of majorities to stay in Canada and with a separatist opposition party (the Bloc Que-becois) in the federal House of Commons, national unity is the debate that never sleeps.
"Talking about national unity can become a device for them to not talk about controversial issues," said Don Savage, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which has been trying to push the higher education debate on to the local level, holding all-candidates meetings on campuses and targeting university constituencies. "Debates on the national level tend to be abstract."
The CAUT did receive some results from a questionnaire they sent to the five major parties (including the Conservatives, the former government which lost every seat save for two but are now making unprecedented gains, the Reform party, a rightwing populist party with high support in western Canada and the fledgling New Democratic party, a leftwing grouping trying to counter the wave of neo-liberalism).
Four of the five major parties (the Bloc did not answer the questionnaire) agreed that higher education is in need of their attention, but tactics on helping the sector that has lost Can$2.29 billion in federal funding since the Liberals took power vary. Although all parties talk about restoring some of that lost money in the form of the traditional cash or tax-point transfers to the provinces (which run their own education ministries), more emphasis is being put on partnerships with the private sector and directed funding to specific research programmes.
During the election, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, who have been consistently in harmony with the student and professor lobbies, have been wanting to see spending on research catch up with the 2.2 per cent of gross domestic product that the average G-7 country spends, rather than the Canadian average of 1.5, ranking them slightly higher than seventh-place Italy. They want the country to offer more student exchanges, international research and try to attract more foreign students. They are also pushing for a comprehensive programme that will help students carry less debt once they finish their schooling.
According to a fact sheet put out by the Canadian Federation of Students, the average student debt loads of 1993 graduates was Can$13,000. That figure has increased by 70 per cent. The average 1997 graduate is carrying Can$22,000. If little changes, this figure is expected to climb to Can$25,000 at the turn of the century, which is more in the range of student debt experienced by American Ivy League students.
CFS national chairperson Brad Lavigne has been trying to make the issue of student debt accumulation an election priority, along with federal funding decreases, rising costs of education and what he sees as an emerging two-tiered system at public colleges and universities. In the final week of the campaign, his non-partisan organisation is airing radio ads that ask voters to choose a candidate "who will make education a priority". He says student indebtedness and increased financial pressures come as a result of recent fee hikes and points out a "public misperception" on the effect of higher tuition and student user fees (which have seen an average increase of 45 per cent in eight of the ten provinces).
"We have to convince people that increasing tuition fees is a political move. To many it has become a natural course of events, like the sun rising and setting." But he sees a tide turning as the public is becoming increasingly aware of student fiscal pressures.
AUCC spokesman Bob Best sums up the frustrations of his sector's members, who have been trying to get the higher education debate on to the floor: "There has not been a number of substantial policy debates on post-secondary education. But one could say there hasn't been substantial policy debate, period."