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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2003

An Open Letter to Paul Martin

Victor Catano
On behalf of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, I would like to congratulate you on your election as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and as of Dec.12, Prime Minister of Canada. We look forward to working with you to improve the state of post-secondary education.

I noted the recent newspaper headlines that lobbyists were forming "line-ups to the right" to seek more tax cuts and a friendlier attitude to Bay Street. I hope you meant what you said at the Liberal convention that you wanted to build "a society based on compassion and caring; not indifference or neglect." In your earlier September remarks to the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, you seemed to place reducing the national debt at the top of your priorities.

According to an October 2003 national poll conducted for CAUT by Decima Research, a majority of Canadians (68 per cent) identified social agenda issues as the priority. They said the issues that are the most important are investing in health care, education, the environment and reducing poverty and unemployment. In fact, less than one in five Canadians support fiscal policy issues such as personal tax relief and reducing the national debt.

I applaud your early commitment to placing more money into public health care and in establishing the national health council. The serious problems confronting our public health system must be overcome. We ask you to provide a realistic assessment of the federal surplus. Every year that surplus is underestimated by billions of dollars, which are then transferred to debt reduction rather than used to improve social services, including health and education. We believe the Canadian public has caught on to this shell game. There is money available to fix the public health and education systems. What we need is commitment and will on your part.

Our universities and colleges have suffered from years of neglect by both the federal and provincial governments. Federal cuts in transfer payments to the provinces were passed on by provincial governments to post-secondary institutions with resulting increases in tuition that have placed the dream of a university or college education for their children beyond the means of many middle- and lower-income parents.

Education, like health, is a provincial responsibility, but the federal government has an obligation in post-secondary education, as in health care, to assure that Canadians from coast-to-coast have access to high quality. The federal government, in which you played a significant role as finance minister, created a series of schemes that tried to finesse dealing with provincial governments by providing funds directly to universities or students. Regretfully, these boutique programs have proven to be poor substitutes for increasing core funding for post-secondary education and having the will to hold the provincial governments accountable for how they spend those funds.

The Canadian public is tired of federal-provincial arguments over who has jurisdiction for health and education. They want the problems solved. The federal government has long played a role in funding post-secondary education, as it has health care. Access and quality of post-secondary education will erode further unless core funding is restored to pre-1990 levels. During the early 1980s, federal funding was equivalent to 0.5 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product, a measure of our wealth. It will take an additional $2 billion a year in federal funding to get back to this level, which is needed to ensure that Canada enjoys the economic, social and cultural benefits of its post-secondary system. The provincial governments, for their part, must be accountable for placing these new funds into public, post-secondary education.

Programs such as the Millennium Scholarships and Canada Education Savings Grants have not worked well. Millennium Scholarships are available to only seven per cent of students and in some provinces, like Ontario, have been used to replace provincial commitments - denying students any additional benefit. Statistics Canada data shows that less than one-quarter of families earning less than $25,000 are able to save an average of $2,400 for their children's education. The Canada Education Savings Grants benefit the wealthiest Canadians.

What we are experiencing, Mr. Martin, is not a brain drain but rather a brain waste. The new economy you envision will not take place if we continue to make access to education dependent on income. Canada remains one of the few industrialized countries without a national system of needs-based grants.

Neither will we develop a new economy if we distort the research process by emphasizing commercialization. We must give our students and researchers the chance to create, to explore and to investigate without the pressure to undertake only those projects that can be quickly commercialized. I am not at all opposed to commercialization, but I become concerned when I hear you speak of the need to maintain basic research funding to universities as an investment whose return is measured by the number of new companies and new jobs that research creates.

I agree with Mike Lazaridis, co-inventor of the Research in Motion BlackBerry, who made the point, in a recent forum at the University of Waterloo, that you cannot push scientists to commercialize their work, or force them to be relevant. As he said, "What we need are for those creative people to be left to do creative things just for the hell of it," and when they do they will figure out something "that is a game changer, that forms the raw material for industry to capitalize and turn into wealth and security for the rest of us."

Mr. Martin, these are only a few of the many issues confronting our universities and colleges. In your Montreal talk you said your message was: "It cannot be business as usual. Nor, I might add, can it be government as usual." My colleagues and I would be very pleased to meet with you to discuss the changes that need to be made to move away from the "usual" and to make the Canadian post-secondary education system one of the best in the world.