The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation is holding a series of country-wide public consultations on the future of its bursary program.
"As we begin the second half of our ten-year mandate, we think it's important to gather the opinions of Canadians on how we can improve the ways in which our millennium bursary recipients benefit from the program," said Norman Riddell, the foundation's executive director.
The foundation is an independent body created by the federal government in 1998 with a $2.5 billion endowment. While the foundation provides $285 million in bursaries and scholarships annually, it has nevertheless been the focus of sustained student opposition since its inception.
Ian Boyko, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, says students are no better off because of the millennium bursaries.
"The foundation has been an abject failure at improving access to post-secondary education in Canada or reducing student debt," Boyko said.
He said because the bursaries were announced without prior consultations with the provinces, there was no coordination with provincial student assistance programs. As a result some provinces used the money they received from the foundation as a way to cut back on their own spending on student financial assistance.
The government of Nova Scotia used the program to eliminate its loan remission program, Boyko said. And in Ontario, which is home to 40 per cent of bursary recipients, only 15 per cent of the total value of the bursaries awarded to students has been passed on.
Boyko said he's disappointed the consultations will not deal with this basic weakness in the program.
Bottom line, he says the foundation likely will do little more than present session participants with three possible ways the bursaries could be better targeted - to students with high debt, students in the first year of a program, or students from low-income households and other under-represented groups.
"Only time will tell whether or not the consultations are sincere, or another legendary Millennium Scholarship Foundation public relations circus," Boyko said.
Despite the limited focus of the consultations, CAUT's executive director James Turk says it is important the foundation hear about the inadequacies of its existing program and the need to distribute more resources to those students most in financial need.
"We feel the foundation's programs should be wound up and converted into one fully needs-based student grant program administered by the federal government," he said. "Along with a reduction in tuition fees, this is the best way to ensure that cost is not a barrier to any qualified student."
At the same time stakeholders are disappointed the consultation process is being set up with little advance notice to stakeholders. "It is very disappointing that event organizers are advising some universities and faculty associations only a week or two before their scheduled hearing date," Turk said.
Boyko said the consultations may be part of a move by the foundation to shift its focus away from providing needs-based assistance. He points to a series of recent studies produced by the foundation downplaying the links between income and access to post-secondary education, and denying that higher tuition fees would reduce participation.
He said the foundation's research agenda means it has transformed itself into a partisan think-tank.
"A supposedly arms-length, publicly-funded foundation has taken on the role of apologist for the federal government's record on post-secondary education," Boyko said. "It's time the foundation was scrapped and the savings rolled into a national system of needs-based grants connected to the Canada Student Loan Program."