Nearly four in 10 Canadians are very concerned about the cost of university and college tuition, a major national poll concludes.
In Atlantic Canada, more than half of those surveyed said they were very concerned about the cost of education.
"There's a fairly widespread worry that rising tuition costs are putting the promise of a university or college education beyond the reach of many Canadians," said CAUT president Victor Catano. "The unprecedented rise in tuition fees we've seen over the past decade is starting to hurt a greater number of families."
Forty-three per cent of respondents to CAUT's Decima survey with household incomes below $60,000 were very concerned about the cost of tuition, compared with about one third of those with incomes between $60,000 and $80,000 and 25 per cent of higher income earners.
In another major finding, more than one in three Canadians surveyed said they are personally very concerned about the quality of education students are receiving, with an additional 39 per cent saying they are somewhat concerned.
When asked to identify the priorities for the federal government, nearly 63 per cent of respondents said improving the health care system should be a very high priority, followed closely by those who, in the wake of the ongoing sponsorship scandal, chose making government more accountable.
Almost half said the federal government should place a very high priority on reducing poverty and unemployment, while 43 per cent opted for affordable college and university education.
Less favoured priorities included paying down the debt (23 per cent) and strengthening the military (21 per cent).
"The concern about access to post-secondary education remains among the top four priorities for Canadians," Catano said. "It is significant and is definitely a signal that Canadians want something done to fix the system."
The poll also shows that support for the governing Liberals has fallen 11 points since last October. Nationally, the Liberals now have the support of 41 per cent of decided and leaning voters, followed by the Conservatives at 27 per cent and the NDP at 19 per cent.
Regionally, the Liberals are leading in Atlantic Canada and in vote-rich Ontario where the party continues to hold the support of more than one-half of decided voters. The Bloc Québécois, with almost one-half (47 per cent) of popular support, has made big gains in Quebec and now leads the Liberals by 11 points. The NDP has lost support in Atlantic Canada, but has gained in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and in British Columbia where it is in a virtual dead heat with the Liberals. The Conservative Party leads only in Alberta where Liberal support has plummeted.
Although national support for the Liberals is equal to that which the party received in the last federal election, they would likely be reduced to a minority government if an election were held today. "The regional numbers make it clear the party would lose seats to the Bloc in Quebec and to the Conservatives and NDP in Ontario, with little prospect of making gains elsewhere in the country," Catano said.
Conducted just before the release in March of the 2004 federal budget, the poll also asked Canadians how Ottawa could best improve access to post-secondary education.
While more than one-quarter (28 per cent) favour giving students and their families more tax breaks and incentives to save for higher education, an equal number said Ottawa should increase funding for universities and colleges so that fees can be lowered.
"These numbers are significant because while the budget provided some enhanced tax breaks and RESP incentives, not a single penny in new money was provided to the provinces to support universities and colleges," Catano explained.
Raising student loan limits was another centrepiece of the budget, but that option was favoured by only 18 per cent of Canadians surveyed as the best way to improve access to post-secondary education.
The survey, conducted for CAUT by Decima Research, is based on interviews with 2,000 adults between March 11 and March 22. National results are considered accurate within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times in 20.