Last week, I wrote a couple of posts on post secondary education and my disappointment with the issue's lack of profile, both on the wider national scene and in the Liberal leadership debate.
After checking the candidates Web sites for education policy and not finding much beyond platitudes, I drafted a few short questions for the campaigns to get a sense of where they're coming from, with the hopes of generating some debate and giving the issue a little more profile.
I asked for responses by this past Wednesday, and I received acknowledgements from the Rae, Ignatieff, Dion, Hall-Findlay and Bennett campaigns. Nada from Bevilacqua, Brison, Dryden, Fry, Volpe or Kennedy. Quite disappointing.
Even more disappointing was that I only got answers back from two campaigns: Bennett and Rae. Kudos to the Rae team for the quickest response, and to Bennett's team for providing the most detailed, on point answers to the questions I posed. I sincerely thank them for taking the time.
1. Do you support the creation of a dedicated transfer to the provinces to post secondary education, and would you attach strings to the funding to ensure federal goals are met around issues like tuition levels, access for low income students, and ensuring provinces don't cut their own funding to negate the impact of any federal increase?
2. What would you do to reform the Canada student loan system?
3. The Canada Millennium Scholarship program is due to end in 2009. What would you do to replace it, and to improve accessibility for low income students?
4. The last Liberal government exempted student loans from the bankruptcy act. Would you reverse that decision? If not, why not?
Rae on education
Their response didn't specifically address each of the questions I'd posed, but they did point the way to a lot of background that served to flush out the candidate's thoughts on the topic.
They pointed to his work on The Rae Report as forming the basis of his education policy. I have already touched on the Rae Report previously, but its recommendations were focused on increased funding for universities from the provinces.
Also highlighted was a speech Bob gave in June to the Economic Club of Toronto that touched on education (pages four thru six of the linked PDF). Here he acknowledges the unacceptably rising cost of education for students and their families, and that the Canada Student Loan system is in need of a complete overhaul.
On this front, he promised a system of needs-based loans and grants geared towards the living expenses of students, not just tuition. He also acknowledged that Ottawa needs to be a full funding partner in post secondary education, and do more to ensure access.
He also promised to pick up the research investment torch of the Chretien/Martin years with a new research and innovation strategy that would include "considerably more funding" for university research.
However, the Rae campaign did not address my most specific question around CSLs and bankruptcy.
My view: Much of his submission was recommendations from his Rae Report, which, because it was commissioned by the Ontario government, came at it from a provincial perspective. In order for the provinces to achieve his recommendations though more federal support will be necessary, so I gather this means he favours giving the provinces the necessary resources. Will he attach strings though? Unclear.
The talk around investing in university research was sound and welcome, as was the need for an overhaul of the CSL system. I'd like more details on the how, though, and assurances income contingent repayment isn't in the cards.
Bennett on Education
Bennett's team specifically addressed each of the four questions I posed, and for the most part I liked her answers and thought they demonstrated a very good understanding of the issues.
On the issue of dedicated transfers and strings, Bennett said she supports a dedicated transfer and increased funding levels, and added it must be conditional on the provinces maintaining their funding levels. She said that would require a transparent budgetary process and the development of a framework in partnership with the provinces and other stakeholders.
On the CSL program, Bennett said the 50/50 plan the Liberals proposed in the last campaign, which would have seen the government would pay half of students’ first and final year tuition fees, would be a good start. She said she would consider tuition deferral, and said "repayment of student loans or deferred tuition should be contingent upon the student entering the work force."
I gather though that this does not mean she would support income contingent loan repayment. In fact, I believe she would be against it, which I'm glad to see, judging by this comment:
"We must also ensure that loan arrangements…do not result in crippling debts and high interest payments, leaving poorer students eventually paying vastly more for their university educations than those better off."
On the Canada Millennium Scholarships, she supports the continuation and expansion of the concept but rightly notes that the implementation has been imperfect and needs to be tweaked, particularly to end the clawback of federal assistance by the provinces.
Lastly, on the issue of bankruptcy, she offers some light but doesn't, in my view, go far enough:
"CASA has not asked for this change to be rescinded, noting that it stands against students using a declaration of bankruptcy to avoid their obligations to repay their loans. However, they have called for the bankruptcy ineligibility period to be reduced from 10 to 5 years, in order to protect those in dire financial circumstances. This proposal should be considered, based on evidence of the impact of the 1998 change."
My view: She gets high marks for the first three answers; I like all that I hear there. Dedicated transfer good, increased funding good, conditions good. I'm interested in hearing more about her ideas around tuition deferral, and was pleased to hear she recognizes the problems with the CSL program and the issues with claw backs around the CMS.
I disagree though with her on bankruptcy. She mentioned CASA a few times in her answers; that's the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, a right-wing student lobby group. Very small compared to its left-wing cousin, the Canadian Federation of Students. Frankly, when I was a student journo covering this stuff regularly I found both groups to often be out to lunch. Besides listening to CASA though, whom are far from representative of most studemts, I'd recommend she also talk to the CFS and other student groups to get their take on the issue. No one favours bankruptcy, but if such a procedure is on the books, I still have yet to have it explained to me why students should be the only group unable to avail themselves of it, if necessary.
Overall though, I think she's on the right track on the education front, has some good ideas, and I hope she'll make it a campaign issue going forward. Diddo Rae and the others.