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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 1999

Western Premiers Want Funding Restored

Bill Graham
Canada's Western premiers and territorial leaders were unanimous in their economic call-to-arms for the restoration of the missing $3.7 billion in federal transfer payments at their annual conference last month. Following close on the heels of Martin's recent largesse which restored $2.5 billion to the health care system the leaders made it evident obtaining federal funds for post-secondary education was now a priority.

Although there is no clear mandate of how to allocate the funds for post-secondary education, health and social assistance, it was clear the premiers want the full restoration of the $6.2 billion cut since Mulroney's infamous budget of 1995.

Post-secondary education was passed over in the last federal budget and the provinces committed themselves to increased provincial spending on health care. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon was quoted as saying, "We believe that we can do similar positive things for post-secondary education if we had Ottawa's commitment to begin to restore the funds."

The Western premiers and territorial leaders say they will press their demands at the annual premiers' conference in August.

More than a year ago Paul Martin confirmed the federal government's withdrawal from its historic commitment to funding post-secondary institutions in favour of measures alleged to alleviate the burden of high student debt, and to encourage personal saving for education. But by all accounts the advent of the Millennium Scholarship Fund will be of far less help to students than it was touted to be, and it ruffled the feathers of the provinces who wanted transfer payments instead of a federal self-serving boutique program.

Canada's universities are already at a huge disadvantage in relation to their counterparts south of the border, and the situation is getting worse with each passing year as the Americans, overall, are investing more dollars into their higher education institutions.

Of course, the federal government is not entirely to blame. Some of the provinces began cutting or freezing university funding before Ottawa took an axe to its transfers. Federal money that was transferred to the provinces had virtually no strings attached, and no assurance that it went for its intended uses.

And, there are problems with the agreement reached in early February between Ottawa and the provinces regarding social program spending. The provinces did promise to increase health care spending if Ottawa came through with increased transfers, but Ottawa's follow-through may depend on at least six of the provinces agreeing, and Quebec would have to be guaranteed the right to opt out of the terms of any federal-provincial agreement.

The February agreement spoke of allowing each province to design its own version of standards according to "its own needs and circumstances." The recent report of the Council of Ministers of Education appeared to underscore this lack of national standards. In fact, provinces vary greatly in relation to their perceived needs and circumstances, so that funding levels and choices from province to province bear little homogeneity.

While BC's per capita spending on education has remained relatively constant, Alberta's has fallen 22 per cent in real dollars since 1993-94, and Ontario -- where enrolment is expected to increase by 40 per cent over the next ten years -- comes in dead last in funding on a per student basis, and its student-faculty ratio is the highest in Canada.

CAUT proposes the introduction of a Post-Secondary Education Fund governed by a Post-Secondary Education Act which outlines federal and provincial responsibilities, establishes national standards, and enacts enforcement mechanisms. The fund should restore the $2.5 billion in federal cash transfers which have been cut since 1993-94, and should grow with the economy.

Prior to the premiers' conference in August, CAUT will step up its pressure on Ottawa and the provinces to increase core funding to Canada's universities, and to develop strong national standards to maintain quality and accessibility. Public education must be kept public -- the drive toward private funding and private institutions must be stopped dead in its tracks.