Despite titling his February budget speech “Responsible Leadership,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty didn’t offer a coherent vision for post-secondary education and research.
In a carefully hedged document geared at garnering enough opposition support to see the bill through Parliament, the minority governing Conservatives ushered in the federal budget Feb. 26 amid warnings of the “challenge of global economic uncertainty.”
Flaherty then announced more than $10 billion towards debt reduction, but ignored the most pressing needs of universities and colleges, said CAUT executive director James Turk.
Aside from the creation of the Canada Student Grant Program, which Turk says is a step in the right direction, and formed through eliminating the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, the budget does little to support students in the current year.
Turk said the government didn’t set aside any new money to finance post-secondary education through the Canada Social Transfer — critical funding used to help universities and colleges make education more affordable and ensure staff and students have access to labs, libraries and other necessary resources.
The budget did announce the creation of a new graduate student scholarship fund named in honour of war hero and former governor general Georges Vanier. Federal funding will provide 500 top Canadian and international doctoral students with up to $50,000 annually for three years. As well, a modest “international study stipend” will be made available to 250 Canada Graduate Scholarship recipients who wish to study at international institutions. The stipend will support study for one semester only.
“Admittedly these investments are positive steps, but we can’t ignore the fact there’s otherwise no funding boost in this budget for Canada’s hundreds of thousands of undergraduate students, masters’ students or most doctoral students,” Turk says. “Unfortunately, the budget is silent on dealing with the real problem — the need for more core funding.”
The budget also offered less than five per cent in funding increases for the indirect costs of university research. It also included modest increases for the three federal granting councils, but the new money is targeted to priority areas set by the government.
“We appreciate the new research funding, but we’re extremely concerned the federal government is increasingly targeting research funding rather than allowing the priorities to be established by the research community,” Turk said.
Graham Cox, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students’ national graduate caucus, agreed that government targeting of research is a dangerous trend.
“The Conservative government has to get past the idea it has a role in meddling with the university research agenda,” he said. “Intervening by setting the priorities for independent research goes against the principles of academic freedom and scholarly inquiry.”
Calling the budget’s contributions for the granting councils “slim and unbalanced,” Cox also denounced the favouring of health and science research over social sciences and humanities.
Both the NDP and Bloc Québécois announced they would vote against the budget bill, but Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion’s reluctant support made the point moot.
Because the budget is a matter of confidence, Dion said voting against it would only trigger an election “that Canadians don’t want.”