Poll puts cash boost on hold for Canada

December 23, 2005

Billions of dollars for higher education promised by the Canadian Government is on hold pending the outcome of a federal election next month.

The Liberal-led minority Government announced an extra C$6.5 billion (Pounds 3.2 billion) for higher education last month but lost a confidence vote days later. The election is due on January 23.

The money, to be disbursed over five years, was to include C$2.2 billion for tuition-fee relief for low and middle-income students, and C$1 billion for infrastructure. The spending would have exceeded the C$1.5 billion over two years that the Liberals originally agreed last summer as part of a deal with the New Democratic Party to stay in power.

"If the Liberals don't win, then everything in the budget update is scrapped," said Jeff Pappone, a spokesman for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The Conservatives, who form the official opposition and are running a close second in polls, did not promise increases in university funding but vowed to cut taxes on textbooks, scholarships and bursaries.

"We will focus assistance directly on students and their parents,"

Conservative leader Stephen Harper said.

The NDP said it would restore post-secondary finances to their levels pre-1994, when the country's federal and provincial governments began to make drastic cuts to balance their books.

"We could see tuition fees cut in half with that amount of money, with more for other things as well," said George Soule, national chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students. But even without the promised extra federal funding, the outlook has turned rosier for Canadian universities in the past year.

More than half the provinces can afford to impose tuition-fee freezes and, with many finally reversing their deficit-slashing cutbacks of the 1990s, average undergraduate university fees increased this year by just 1.8 per cent - the lowest hike since 1978.

In Ontario, a year-long review of higher education in the country's most populous province by former premier Bob Rae resulted in the provincial government making its richest single funding increase to universities in decades. The province revamped its university funding last spring with a promise of C$6.2 billion more for the post-secondary system over the next five years.

In Alberta - a province awash in oil and, because of record-high petroleum prices, cash - tuition fees are frozen for most students this year. The government has even proposed waiving fees entirely for first and second-year undergraduates.

Additional money may be on the way no matter who wins the federal election.

The more sanguine forecasts have pegged this year's federal budget surplus at C$10 billion, and the provinces are clamouring for a share - especially to fund universities.

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