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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2001

Everyone Benefits from Public Hearings

Tom Booth
Several months have lapsed since CAUT issued the report on the Halifax hearings held last spring. These hearings addressed the future of university education in Canada. Various issues were raised: tuition fees and student debt, public funding and commercialization, infrastructure, quality of education, and accessibility.

Commissioners and public witnesses to the hearings concluded that tuition fees and student debt had reached the breaking point. It was recognized that integrity and independence of research would be further jeopardized without renewal of lost public funding. Facilities in which to study and conduct research and effectively advance the teaching mission of the city's universities had been seriously compromised. Participants acknowledged that any long-term solutions to 'cure the patients' had to start with renewed funding commitments requiring Ottawa and the provinces to reform or replace the Canada Health and Social Transfer with an alternative arrangement

In the months ahead, several more public hearings into the future of post-secondary education are scheduled. These events are now more important than ever.

It is widely accepted that an affordable, accessible and high quality post-secondary education system is essential to the cultural, social and economic development of our nation. An open and dynamic democratic society demands the critical thinking, effective communication and independent inquiry inherent in an academic education. University education nurtures intellectual curiosity and talent and gives rise to a more equitable and inclusive society.

Unfortunately, Canada's ability to reap these benefits has been compromised as a consequence of public funding cuts and fundamental flaws in federal-provincial fiscal arrangements in support of post-secondary education.

The shortfalls are well documented. Real per capita funding of post-secondary education is 17 per cent below that of 10 years ago and it continues to fall. And nearly $7 billion was extracted from federal cash transfers and made unavailable for post-secondary education, health and social assistance during 1996-1998. Although the Canada Health and Social Transfer was markedly increased for health and education in 2000, an immediate investment of $2 billion would be required to restore federal post-secondary funding to the early 1990s level. Also, with adjustments for inflation and population growth, it is estimated that the federal cash contribution available for post-secondary education has decreased by 32 per cent since 1992 — from $2.9 to $1.9 billion.

In 2000-­2001, total provincial expenditures on post-secondary education decreased by 3.2 per cent and across Canada, university operating grants, when adjusted for inflation, remained 27 per cent below 1992­1993 levels. All of this has resulted in rising tuition fees, reduced numbers of full-time faculty members, fewer course offerings, larger class sizes, increased use of tele-courses and other such species, dependence on corporate participation and deteriorating infrastructure.

University and college funding by provincial governments is facing new strains as a result of the current economic slowdown. Falling revenues and previously announced commitments to tax cuts mean the combined $30 billion surpluses posted by the federal and provincial governments last year can be expected to turn into a $8 billion deficit for the year to come. We are certainly in for further spending restraint with most of the provinces under balanced budget legislation. Spending freezes and cuts have already been announced in some of our provinces.

In addition, the role of universities and colleges in today's society and economy is increasingly being expanded. The pressing political challenge we face is not only just how much public money we should spend on post-secondary education, but also how we can ensure that this funding better meets the core needs of our colleges and universities.

In recent times, funding to our universities and colleges has been directed away from core operations such as foundation-building academic instruction, pathways for information integration and approaches to basic research, to what many refer to as 'boutique' spending: the Millennium Scholarships, Registered Education Savings Plan, Canada Foundation for Innovation, and Canada Research Chairs program. Such initiatives have diverted funds away from supporting the core teaching and non-sponsored research missions of our institutions. Without support for advancement of thought, ideas and basic research, sources of information and data crucial to the public domain are placed at significant risk.

It is clear that post-secondary education needs to become a national priority. But this requires a whole new federal-provincial commitment. The Canada Health and Social Transfers should be repealed and the federal government, working with the provinces, should introduce a separate and transparent post-secondary education fund to be governed by a post-secondary education act, modeled after the Canada Health Act. The PSE fund, proposed under CAUT's Canada Post-Secondary Education Act, guarantees accountability for how federal funds are spent. It outlines clear responsibilities and expectations, establishes national standards and principles — such as public administration, accessibility, comprehensiveness, collegial governance and academic freedom — and determines long term and stable funding formulae.

Inauguration and implementation of such legislation will require cooperation on the part of all players. The crisis in post-secondary education, as demonstrated by the Halifax hearings, is becoming too conspicuous and too important to ignore any longer. Local hearings in the months ahead, like the Halifax hearings, will help us work toward a solution in the current crisis. Public hearings are more important than ever, especially in a time of fiscal restraint.

If we agree that an accessible and high quality post-secondary education system is key to Canada's future, then it is time that cooperation replaces conflict in every quarter.