CAUT is warning that last month's federal budget will not improve access to Canada's universities and colleges.
The budget, Paul Martin's first as prime minister, unveiled a series of high profile measures intended to make it easier for lower- and middle-income families to pay for the soaring cost of tuition, but CAUT president Victor Catano says none of the initiatives deal with the root of the problem.
"Access is a problem because chronic underfunding is pushing up tuition fees and limiting the number of spaces available for students at colleges and universities," Catano said. "Nothing in the budget gets to the heart of the matter - the lack of adequate public funding."
The budget, Catano said, contained no new increases in transfers to the provinces to help fund post-secondary education. Instead, Finance Minister Ralph Goodale focussed his attention on student financial assistance, announcing an increase in student loan limits and new measures designed to make it more attractive for families to make contributions to Registered Education Savings Plans.
"Forcing students and their families to take on even larger debts and to try to scrimp and save more isn't a solution at all," Catano said. "What students and their families really needed in this budget was for the federal government to increase core funding of post-secondary education in exchange for the provinces agreeing to freeze and lower tuition fees. What they got instead was a prescription for more debt."
Student groups also expressed dissatisfaction with the budget.
"Paul Martin's plan for post-secondary education is to plunge students deeper into debt," said Ian Boyko, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. "Higher loan limits will allow universities to raise tuition fees, not help students make ends meet."
For low-income families, the government is planning to offer "learning bonds" for each child and a modest grant to first year students covering up to half of tuition costs to a maximum of $3,000.
Beginning this year, Ottawa will provide a $500 Canada Learning Bond at birth for each child born into a family with income under $35,000 and an additional $100 for each year that the child remains in low income, to a maximum of $2,000. The bonds will be paid into a RESP that, according to government estimates, will be worth $3,000 in today's dollars when it matures 18 years from now.
But Boyko said the learning bond will do little to assist students with immediate needs.
"The RESP learning bond for low-income families will not come into use for close to two decades. Besides, $100 a year spread over 15 years will do little to help poor families pay for post-secondary education."
When adjusted for inflation, average undergraduate tuition fees, have risen 107 per cent since 1990, with even steeper increases facing students enrolled in law (217 per cent), medicine (320 per cent) and dentistry (400 per cent).
For Catano at CAUT, "if Paul Martin was really serious about improving access to education, there are two things his government could do right now. One is to increase core funding of universities and colleges so fees can be lowered. The second is to create a needs-based grant program available for students in all years of their programs."
Other measures announced in the budget include a $90 million funding boost for the granting agencies and a new pilot program to promote the commercialization of university research.
The increase in research funding amounts to an additional $39 million for CIHR, $39 million for NSERC and $12 million for SSHRC.
CAUT executive director James Turk said the increased research funding is welcomed, but it's disappointing the SSHRC budget did not receive a larger increase to make up for the imbalance in funding levels between the different granting agencies.
Turk also questioned the new $50 million competitive fund being created to encourage the commercialization of university research. Under the plan, granting agencies, universities and research hospitals will be invited to submit proposals to a fund administered by Industry Canada with the process determined by an advisory committee composed of private sector representatives.
"CAUT has long been concerned about the government's narrowing focus on commercialization, but this new fund raises other serious concerns," Turk said. "This new commercialization fund is being administered by Industry Canada and not the granting agencies, and the private sector will have a large say in the design and criteria of the program. Competitive research proposals should be judged in a peer review process at arms-length from government and special interests."