Critics debate Canadian federal education platforms

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      David Mirhady isn’t a fan of the registered education savings plan. The associate professor and president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. doesn’t like the idea that government funds topping up contributions to this plan go mostly to well-to-do families capable of saving a lot in the first place.

      So when Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff unveiled the centrepiece of his federal party’s education platform, Mirhady wasn’t totally thrilled.

      That’s because the so-called Learning Passport, which aims to give $1,000 a year for four years to all high-school students for their postsecondary education, will be provided through the RESP system.

      Although parents don’t have to make a contribution for their children to qualify for the Learning Passport, the chair of the SFU humanities department said that the Liberal plan appears to be using the grant as a mere “hook” for the RESP.

      “Clearly, there are many students from families who are well-heeled who won’t have any trouble going into university at all, regardless of how much you charge,” Mirhady told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “So it doesn’t seem to be any point in using government money to subsidize them. It makes much more sense to use government money to help those students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to university but who have the ability to be successful there. If you’re not having to pay a lot of money to people who don’t need it, then you could use it more effectively for those who do need it.”

      The Learning Passport is estimated to cost $1 billion annually, and that amount is what excites Mirhady the most in terms of what the federal parties have announced regarding education during this election campaign.

      “Let’s take the Liberal promise of a billion additional federal dollars for postsecondary education and let’s have a wider discussion about how most effectively to spend that money,” he said.

      According to Mirhady, the Green Party of Canada’s plan to allot $400 million a year over a period of three years to increase postsecondary bursaries is a good starting point.

      “If it’s bursary money, then it’s aimed at students who really need it,” he said of the Greens’ proposal. “That piece of the puzzle, they’ve thought it right. It’s aiming the money at where it’s needed.”

      George Davison, a history instructor on leave from the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, wishes the Greens would talk even more about education. According to him, there isn’t much detail about this in their platform.

      Davison is also the secretary-treasurer of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C., and he considers education promises being made by the federal parties—like the $1,000-a-year-grant proposed by the Liberals—as being a drop in the bucket.

      “Tuition alone in most institutions is about $5,000 a year,” Davison told the Straight in a phone interview from the FPSE’s Vancouver office.

      The ruling Conservative platform talks about what it has done so far to support Canadian students, such as the introduction of a tax credit for textbooks. But Davison claimed that students haven’t had any substantial relief.

      According to him, students carry an average debt of $27,000. A Statistics Canada study noted that 57 percent of graduating students in 2005 had loans. This was up from 49 percent 10 years earlier. The study established that average student debt on graduation increased from $15,200 to $18,800 during that decade. In addition, the proportion of students who graduated with a debt of at least $25,000 increased to 27 percent in 2005 from 17 percent in 1995.

      The Conservatives have committed to undertake initiatives like doubling the work exemption for the Canada Student Loans Program. This means that students will be able to work more hours at part-time jobs without affecting their loan eligibility.

      “A lot [of students] are [working] full-time, trying to do both at the same time, so I don’t know if that’s really going to make much difference on the ground,” Davison noted.

      Tuition fees are a large burden for students, and federal New Democrats say they have a way to address this concern.

      The NDP platform pledges $800 million in federal transfers to provinces and territories that will be used in accordance to the provisions of a postsecondary-education bill proposed by the party. The legislation provides a set of criteria to qualify for such monies, including indicators of affordability, like average tuition fees being charged in provinces.

      StatsCan figures show that full-time students in undergraduate programs paid four percent more in tuition fees for the 2010-2011 academic year over the previous school year.

      According to Mirhady, there could be a snag in the NDP plan because provinces are responsible for administering postsecondary education.

      “The history of such funding in Canada is that deals are made for a time,” Mirhady said, “and then with new regimes these are broken, as the provinces can always say: ”˜We’ll take money from the federal government but we’ll decrease our own contributions,’ and you’re no further ahead in postsecondary education.”




      Apr 14, 2011 at 3:57am

      It is true that the current RESPs are used by middle and upper class families, but they also require the family to put money in. What is different about the learning passport is that it doesn't require any money from the family. So why wouldn't low income families take advantage of that? There are no fees. Does Mirhandy think they are less likely to think of education? Less likely to be aware of government programs? She doesn't explain. However, if she is correct, then the issue is information and promoting the program to those families. The Harper govt spends a lot on advertising, but advertising a program that can help all families with children would be an excellent use of federal advertising.

      Rolf Auer

      Apr 14, 2011 at 2:07pm

      In Canada, however, even if by some miracle tuition fees were rolled back or eliminated tomorrow, it would do nothing to alleviate the financial distress of the thousands of graduates still heavily burdened with student debt. The escalation of tuition fees (up $5,000 a year in many provinces) has garnered some political, public, and media attention, but the desperate plight of graduates—many of whom are staggering under debt-loads as large as the mortgages their parents started out with—continues to be ignored.
      —Monitor, “An 8-point plan to tackle Canada’s student loan crisis,” CCPA, Mark O’Meara, November 2007, p. 34

      Please vote!--@Rolf_Auer

      Problem is the schools

      Apr 14, 2011 at 2:08pm

      There's no mechanism in that $1000 offer to keep the cost of tuition down. You can be damn sure of one thing, and that is that if the plan goes forward, there will be a combined increase of $1000/year across tuition, textbooks, and rent within a very short period of time.

      If tuitions are too high, students need to lobby the people directly responsible for setting tuition: the universities, not the government.