The New Democratic Party introduced a Post-Secondary Education Act in Parliament Feb. 5, which would see the federal government playing a more active role in reducing tuition fees and promoting quality in post-secondary education.
The education act, based on legislation first proposed by CAUT, would create a separate funding envelope for post-secondary education and ensure greater accountability and transparency over how federal funds are spent.
“Today, there’s no guarantee that federal funding intended for post-secondary education is actually used by the provinces to support universities and colleges,” said CAUT president Greg Allain. “Under the existing Canada Social Transfer cash and tax points flow to the provinces, but there has been little public discussion or policy development about how social funding is dispensed from Ottawa to the provinces. The result has been a reluctance by Ottawa to make the necessary long-term financial commitments to our universities and colleges.”
Allain says this has helped lead to a tripling of tuition fees since 1990–1991, and more than a 20 per cent reduction in total university operating grants, measured in constant dollars and per full-time equivalent student, between 1989 and 2004.
Like the Canada Health Act, the proposed legislation would guarantee stable federal education transfers. In return, the provinces would agree to use federal dollars to promote accessibility, ensure quality and route public money only to publicly-administered institutions.
“Given the central importance of post-secondary education to Canada’s social and economic well-being, there is a desperate need for a national vision,” Allain said. “We believe this proposed act is the first step toward developing that vision.”
Denise Savoie, the NDP’s education critic, said her party will be using “every lever and pressure point in Parliament” to make sure the legislation passes.
The NDP sees this as a way to pressure the Conservative government to follow through on its election promise to create an independent Canada Post-Secondary Education and Training Transfer, Savoie said.
According to Savoie, federal transfers for post-secondary education have declined steadily in the last two decades, from an estimated 0.56% of GDP in 1984 to 0.41% of GDP in 1993 and only 0.19% of GDP in 2005.
“For a full decade since the Liberals slashed federal transfers, Canada’s post-secondary education community has been torn between accessibility and quality. For students, what does that mean? It has meant unaffordable tuition fees. It has meant deteriorating resources and increasingly corporate campuses,” she told CanWest News Service.
A spokesperson for federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty declined to comment on whether the upcoming budget would include a dedicated transfer for post-secondary education. The federal budget is expected to be tabled in early March.