Student fees and funding ‘key battleground’ in Canadian election

Main political parties take different approaches to improving affordability of higher education

October 7, 2019
Source: Getty
Strong support Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party would allow new parents to pause student loan repayments

Student funding is proving to be a key issue in the campaigns for Canada’s upcoming federal election, with most of the major political parties promising to improve the affordability of higher education, but in differing ways.

Just as university funding has been a critical element in the race for the US Democratic presidential nomination this year, politicians to the north of the border have been unveiling plans to reduce tuition costs and increase student grants.

Last month, prime minister and Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau promised to increase student grants by 40 per cent; to give new graduates two years’ grace before they must start to repay student loans, instead of the current six months; and to enable graduates to postpone those repayments until they are earning at least C$35,000 (£21,000) – up from the current C$25,000 threshold.

New parents would also be able to pause student loan repayments until their youngest child turns five, without accruing interest during that time, Mr Trudeau pledged ahead of the election on 21 October.

The prime minister made the announcements at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus in Ontario – where the Progressive Conservative premier and populist Doug Ford has forced through deep education spending cuts. While Mr Ford lowered tuition fees, he has also cut student loan and grant funding, and his approval rating has plummeted in recent months.

“Education matters to young people across the country, of course, but it’s especially top of mind here in Ontario, as Doug Ford slashes education funding and makes it near impossible to pay for tuition,” Mr Trudeau said.

The Conservative party was yet to publish its manifesto as Times Higher Education went to press, but the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party have both addressed the affordability of post-secondary education in their campaigns.

The NDP said its goal was to work towards free university and college tuition, and it has promised to work with provinces and territories to cap, or even reduce, tuition fees. It has also pledged to eliminate federal interest rates on student loans and to boost student grant funding.

Meanwhile, the Greens have pledged to eliminate post-secondary tuition fees and to forgive federal student debt. They also said they would ensure that Indigenous students have access to post-secondary education.

Sofia Descalzi, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, which advocates for free post-secondary education, said the topic was “definitely an important talking point in this election season”.

“Students are going to be one of the largest voting blocs, and there are a lot of [other] people who are student debt holders,” she said.

“Now, more than in other elections, we’re seeing that most of the parties actually do have a stance on post-secondary education.”

While voters in Canada are not required to register in advance of heading to the polls, Ms Descalzi said that high numbers of students were pledging to vote.

“In the last election in 2015, voter turnout went from 38 per cent to 56 per cent among students and youths. We’re expecting that percentage to be even higher this time around,” she added. “This election, students might be the game changers for sure.”

Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto, said that although education was largely a provincial, rather than a federal, mandate in Canada, most of the major parties were “making affordability the central aspect of their campaigns”, but in “slightly different ways”.

“It’s not necessarily a vote swinger but…nobody wants to say that they’re against education,” he said. “Almost half of students go on to post-secondary education of some sort.”

Dr Woodgett said that Ontario and Quebec were the two largest provinces in terms of the number of seats in parliament, which meant that issues that are “sensitive in those provinces tend to get more attention”.

He added that the Liberal party proposal to increase student grants by 40 per cent would enable provinces to offset all tuition costs for low-income students without any cost to the provincial governments.

“The parties are trying to leverage provincial counterparts to take their policies and transfer [them] in terms of their own policies for the benefit of students and families,” Dr Woodgett said.

While the various proposals would affect students in “different ways, in terms of whether they’re means-tested, for the neediest, or universal”, Dr Woodgett concluded that “no matter what happens [in the election], it’s probably going to be good for students and their families”.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Prominent role for student issues in Canadian election

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Reader's comments (2)

Ah, but these are election 'promises'... can they be trusted? Of course not: they say whatever they think will get your vote.... but do not regard anything as binding once they gain office.
We elect representatives to make most decisions (instead of having a national referendum) presumably because their wider lived-experience gives them the wisdom to make better choices. The fact that young adults overwhelmingly prefer democratic socialism to social democracy suggests representative elections are much less likely to result in one party dictatorships.

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