Sunday, January 15, 2006

Grading the parties on education

I've been meaning to write about education for a while. Somehow though, other events got in the way! It seems a little pointless to talk policy at this point but with all the platforms out, why not?

I think a lot of the problems with post secondary education can be traced back to two things: the rising cost of health care, and the deficit fighting Federal Government’s decision in the 1990s to both slash provincial transfers and no longer separate the health and education components. This left the provinces free to divert money from education to meet their every increasing health care costs. Provinces mainly dealt with this in one of two ways:

1) The NDP government in BC froze tuition. Sounds great, sign me up. But there’s a flip side. They also froze funding to universities, leaving them with no way to raise additional funds (other than hiking international student fees). The result? Crumbling and crowded infrastructure, and a leap to catch-up (by hiking tuition) when the freeze was lifted.
2) Then there’s the Ontario model, simply let tuition skyrocket because you’re not going to increase their funding yourself. The result? Crushing student debt and barriers to access.

I think another Fed mistake was when MinFin Martin removed the student loan program from the bankruptcy act. It’s simply unfair and can’t be justified. The student loan program is also a mess and needs major reform, and btw income contingent loans are not the answer. It just means higher interest loans for the poor, and makes universities feel less guilty about hiking tuition.

So when I examined the three party platforms I was hoping to find:

1) Student loan reform, including bringing it back under the bankruptcy act.
2) A dedicated education-funding component as part of the transfers to the provinces.

And apologies to Paul Wells, but I’ll be leaving out research and focusing on student issues.

Invest $100 million per year in measures to improve support for postsecondary students, including the enhancement of the Canada Student Loans program.

Sounds great, but I’d like more details. As I said, income-contingent loans, which have been favored by the right, would be bad.

Work with the provinces to increase family income thresholds for student loan eligibility.

This is good. Family income can often make it hard for a student to get a loan because it assumes the family can afford to help, when often they can’t.

Exempt the first $10,000 of student scholarship or bursary income from taxation.

I don’t think any scholarships or bursaries should be taxable, but this is a move in the right direction anyway.

Provide students or their parents with a federal tax credit on spending up to $500 per year on textbooks.

This was about all I’d heard from the Cons on education before, and it didn’t exactly wow me.

In cooperation with the provinces, remove postsecondary education funding from the Canada Social Transfer and create an independent Canada Education and Training Transfer to ensure that there is dedicated funding for postsecondary education and training.

Now we’re talking! I’m actually surprised; I’d have thought the Cons would have stayed away from this, education being a provincial responsibility and all. This is good news, my only worry is how much $, and will this be used as a cover to lower funding? Still, I’ll be optimistic, because I’m glad they’re talking about it.

Grade: B Mainly the same tax cut fits all solution they peddle in every other area. Most students don’t have an income to tax, so it’s transferred to the parents. How many parents in turn cut their kids a cheque? The dedicated transfer is great news if it’s accompanied by increased funding. Would like more details in planned CSL reforms.

• A step at a time, as finances permit, restore the funding that was cut by Paul Martin to transfer payments for post-secondary education in the 1990s.
• Offer provinces and territories a binding commitment to stable, long-term funding in this area through a dedicated transfer, in return for an equally binding commitment to better access and lower tuition fees.

Again short on specifics, but good stuff. The cautious tone is unusual for the NDP, but not inappropriate. Like the Conservatives they promise a dedicated transfer, but they seem to go further by both implying they’ll raise funding back to 1990s levels and attach strings.

Re-investing in a stable, long-term federal grant system to make education and training affordable in every year of study, including special grants for rural and Aboriginal youth to ensure students can finish the programs they begin.

Targeted grants are good. I like that.

• Overhauling the Canada Student Loans Program to create a comprehensive program designed to improve access and reduce the burden of student debt.

Again that sounds very nice, but how?

Grade: A- They hit most of the needed areas, but with a prudence unusual for the NDP. More details on CSL (loans, not the shipping line) reform might raise their grade.

Enhanced student financial assistance: The 50/50 Plan – If elected, a Liberal government will pay one-half of an undergraduate’s first year and graduating year tuition (to a maximum grant of $3,000 in any year).

This was the big announcement and I like it. It’s real and it’s meaningful, and it could really help improve access. There’s a big BUT though, which will come shortly.

• Expanded Canada Access Grants

Grants are good, why not.

Comprehensive review of student assistance …review Canada’s system of student financial assistance… ensure that students from middle-income families and students with dependents do not face insuperable financial barriers. The review will examine a range of potential measures such as grants, loans, and ways to improve debt management, including reduced interest rates.

The third party to promise a review, a nice way of avoiding taking a position. I’m less accepting here because after so many years of government they should have reviewed this already.

Grade: C+ Shocking? I know, what with their splashy tuition promise. But here’s my concern. What’s to stop the universities from jacking-up tuition by the same amount? Those savings could be wiped-out pretty quick. Also, they failed to mention increased block funding and a dedicated education transfer. Beyond the flash, the substance is missing.

Overall, I was surprised at the common ground between the Conservative and NDP platforms. If we do end-up with a Conservative minority, I’m hopeful there’s ground for the two to work together on some of these issues, and maybe pull the Liberals and BQ along too.

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1 comment:

RossK said...

"What’s to stop the universities from jacking-up tuition by the same amount?"

Absolutely nothing!

Say it again.