Just days before the federal election, representatives of the four main national parties made a last minute pitch to CAUT Council delegates during a roundtable debate on post-secondary education.
Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger struggled to defend his party's record, claiming federal funding to the provinces in support of education has now reached an all time high.
"When you look at the cash transfers, tax points and equalization payments, there is more money there than ever before," Bélanger said. "So it's facile to say that we are underfunding education."
He also insisted his government has made education a priority by introducing the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Millennium Scholarship program, and the Canada Research Chairs.
However, Council delegates reacted strongly when Bélanger claimed that "no one is complaining about the research chairs."
"Come to my university," one delegate shouted. "This program has no support from us."
Nestor Gayowsky of the Canadian Alliance said his party would restore cuts the Liberals had made to the granting councils and to transfers to the provinces, but would be reluctant to provide any tuition rollbacks or debt relief for students.
"Let's remember that it was this kind of thinking that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union," Gayowsky claimed. "Rather than letting the market decide, there was a subsidy for everything."
When asked whether their party would support the establishment of a national post-secondary education act modelled on the Canada Health Act, Stephen Woollcombe of the Progressive Conservatives said his party would restore federal transfers but would not be in favour of making the provinces more accountable.
"I don't think the time is right for the federal government to get directly involved in education," Woollcombe explained. "It would not be well received and would likely inflame the provinces."
Joseph Zebrowski of the NDP was more supportive, suggesting that Ottawa needs to set national objectives in order to ensure federal dollars earmarked for post-secondary education are spent as intended.
"Without some accountability mechanism, federal cash transfers may never be spent on universities and colleges," Zebrowski argued.
The Alliance's Gayowsky said his party would respect the British North America Act which grants the provinces jurisdiction over education, while Bélanger of the Liberals said he supports the idea of a federal post-secondary education act in principle, but that a full debate needs to take place.