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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2000

The Future of PSE at Stake

After an auspicious beginning, February turned into a bad month for post-secondary education in Canada. The highpoint was Feb. 2 when the Canadian Federation of Students held lively Access 2000 events in more than 50 cities in support of better public funding and more accessibility. But, by the end of the month Paul Martin and Mike Harris gave the back of their hand to Canada's faculty, students and academic staff.

Most disappointing was the federal budget which signalled a dramatic shift in federal government priorities. It not only reneged on the Liberal pledge to devote half of the surplus to renewed spending, but also continued Ottawa's withdrawal of support from post-secondary education, health care, and other social programs at a time when the cuts of the 1990s could have been reversed.

As a result of measures taken in the federal budget, program spending will increase only marginally next year and actually fall as a share of Gross Domestic Product from 12.2 per cent to 11.6 per cent -- the lowest level as a share of the economy since the 1950s.

For post-secondary education, the news was particularly unpleasant -- despite some gratuitous references to its importance in budget documents. Out of every dollar in surplus the Finance Minister anticipated over the next five years, he pledged less than half a cent for core funding of post-secondary education -- and even that depends on the willingness of provinces to spend the unconditional CHST transfer as the feds have suggested.

Meanwhile, Martin committed the government to an ongoing and multi-year tax reduction plan that guarantees the bulk of future surpluses will go to tax cuts rather than renewed spending and investment. This effectively ties the hands of future governments by emptying the public purse of the funds needed to sustain strong public systems of post-secondary education, health care and social programs.

For research, Martin proudly promised an additional $900 million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) while hoping people would ignore that there was no new money for the granting councils.

The significance of this should not be lost. Martin starves the principal funders of basic research -- the granting councils for social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and medicine and health -- while pouring close to a billion additional dollars into a program over which "partners" have an effective veto. Under CFI rules, a researcher has to raise 60 cents from a partner (often a private corporation) for every 40 cents in public money.

The budget's expansion of plans for 2,000 Canada Research Chairs addresses the need for more faculty. But questions remain about initial indications these faculty will not teach and that Canada's two-tier hiring process (making jobs available to Canadians first) will be bypassed. There is some irony in lifting this requirement since part of the rationale for the program was to stem the alleged "brain drain" from Canada.

The bad news from the federal government was matched by Ontario's premier who proudly announced that universities produce great thinkers but do not prepare people for work. His government then announced a $1.4 billion building program (half to come from the private sector) which is the largest investment in post-secondary education in a generation.

The money is being used to transform post-secondary education -- pouring money into high-tech courses at major universities and colleges, while starving the liberal arts and smaller institutions that focus on them. Harris seems to feel that students not interested in university degrees in applied fields should take job-oriented diplomas at community colleges -- and even there the limited emphasis on a general education should be abandoned.

Both governments seem to have no awareness of the vital role post-secondary education plays in a democratic society. Nor does either recognize the long-term consequences of government underfunding and the narrowing of the university's mission to that of a servant for the corporate sector.

CAUT's public awareness campaign is directed to changing federal government agendas. Recent polls suggest we have strong public support. The four-page insert in this edition of the Bulletin shows an unprecedented number of our colleagues are prepared to speak out. Our universities and colleges are too important to allow them to be deformed by short-sighted politicians and their misguided policies. This is one struggle we can win, and we will.