Students largely left out of federal budget


Despite focus on research and innovation, no new student aid initiatives announced in budget 2012

Emma Godmere
CUP National Bureau Chief

OTTAWA (CUP) — Higher education in the context of research and innovation stole much of the spotlight in the federal government’s latest budget, but students and youth seeking greater financial aid were otherwise left in the dark.

“The plan’s measures focus on the drivers of growth: innovation, business investment, people’s education, and skills that will fuel the new wave of job creation,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters in advance of the budget’s unveiling in the House of Commons on March 29.

But apart from a heavy focus on industry-related research and additional funding for one particular youth employment program, Canadian post-secondary students were largely missing from the Conservatives’ 2012 budget.

“There’s no relief in this budget for students,” said Roxanne Dubois, national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). “We’re facing the highest tuition fees, the highest student debt — and it’s basically gone unnoticed by this budget.”

Research and innovation

The Conservatives instead placed a clear emphasis on innovation and research funding, namely in the form of partnerships between businesses and universities. Among their plans, they intend to dedicate $14 million over two years to double the Industrial Research and Development Internship Program, which currently supports 1,000 graduate students in conducting research at private-sector firms.

The Conservatives also plan to send $6.5 million over three years to McMaster University for a health-care research project, and will dedicate $500 million over five years to support modernization of research infrastructure on campuses through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, starting in 2014.

Paul Davidson, president and CEO of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, called the investments “smart and strategic” and was generally supportive of the research funding proposals outlined by the Conservatives.

“When you look at what the government has been considering over the last several months, where every department was asked to present [cuts] … I think Canadian universities can be quite proud and quite pleased that the government recognizes the central role universities play,” he said.

NDP post-secondary education critic Rathika Sitsabaiesan, meanwhile, raised concerns over the fact that the majority of the research funding outlined in the budget was tied to specific industries.

“It’s all about controlling the research that’s being done in this country, which doesn’t sound right,” she said.

Some money was earmarked for Canada’s three research granting councils, however, reflecting similar numbers mentioned in the 2011 budget: federal funding to the tune of an additional $37 million annually is set to begin in 2012-13. Despite this, the document noted “granting councils will be pursuing operational efficiencies and reallocation of funding from lower-priority programs to generate savings,” and that the government would “fully reinvest 2012-13 savings in priority areas of the granting councils, particularly in industry-academic partnerships.”

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will see $15 million per year for patient-oriented research; another $15 million per year will be directed to Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for partnerships and innovation and $7 million per year will be funneled into industry-academic partnership initiatives at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“The funding to the granting councils is targeted and it’s exclusive,” Sitsabaiesan said. “It really doesn’t give the granting councils the autonomy they need to be able to do the research that needs to be done …. Instead, they’re forcing the granting councils to fund research initiatives within the private sector and of course also they’re funding only research that’s being tied with private sector corporations.”

The Toronto MP also pointed out that the portion of the budget that dealt with post-secondary education often reaffirmed plans and funding that had been in play since 2006. For example, the 2012 budget marks the end of the stimulus phase of the government’s economic action plan and thus the end of the Knowledge Infrastructure Program, which provided nearly $2 billion over two years for construction projects at university and college campuses across the country. Budget 2012 reported that a total of 515 projects were completed under the program and, while five have yet to be completed, no further federal funding will be provided for those unfinished projects.

Katimavik funding eliminated

There were youth-related cuts in the document, too. Living up to rumours that swirled in the media in the days leading up to the budget, the government cut funding to Katimavik, a popular youth program that supported young Canadians traveling the country to participate in volunteer projects. The government announced its intentions to continue to invest in “affordable, effective programming” and that Canadian Heritage would pledge over $105 million in youth initiatives, though few details were provided.

Liberal youth critic Justin Trudeau, a longtime supporter and former board chair of the program, had been speaking out against the rumoured cuts days in advance of the budget presentation.

“The needs for students are enormous and when they’re turning around and cutting $30 million over two years by eliminating the Katimavik program, you can see that there’s not a lot of money in there for young people,” said the Montreal MP, when asked about the lack of support for youth in the budget.

“We have to make sure we’re investing in our young people and their capacity to become those productive, contributing citizens we need them to be. And this government is not, once again, living up to its obligations to the future of Canada and to our young people.”

Employment issues

In the area of job creation specifically for youth, the Conservatives only announced they would add another $50 million over two years to the existing Youth Employment Strategy, which, according to the government, connected nearly 70,000 youth with work experience and skills training last year.

“It’s nice to see that that came in after we saw that they were closing employment centres,” said Zach Dayler, national director for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA).

“The Youth Employment Program will hopefully provide valuable work experience for students but also provide skills development for youth who are at risk, which I think is a huge, huge thing,” he continued, adding that despite its small price tag in the context of the budget, “it’s a start.”

Both CASA and CFS reps expressed their disappointment over the lack of proposed financial aid for students, though Dayler noted that they weren’t “expecting to see any major investments” in this area for students. While the government re-affirmed its plan to forgive student loans of up to $40,000 for new doctors and $20,000 for new nurses and nurse practitioners who plan to work in rural and aboriginal communities, starting in 2012-13, this plan had already been announced in last year’s budget.

Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May also said she was “very disappointed” that no greater moves were made to relieve youth unemployment and student debt in the budget, and added that she will be speaking to students on various campuses in the coming days to discuss many of these issues.

“The priority is to engage people so that we can put up the kind of cross-country response. We need to mobilize,” she said. “There’s a very bad message that sometimes goes out, that there’s nothing we can do because Stephen Harper has a majority until 2015.”

Nevertheless, thanks to their majority government status, it’s expected that the Conservatives will pass their budget plan with ease. Among further plans outlined in the document, they will reduce government employment by 4.8 per cent – or 19,200 jobs – though details surrounding which departments or programs will be affected, such as the federal public service student employment program, have yet to be shared.

The Conservatives also laid out additional departmental cuts to Human Resources and Social Development (HRSDC), noting that some changes will “transform the administration of grants and contributions to enhance online delivery and reduce red tape and the paper burden for applicants and recipients.” Cuts to HRSDC in the 2012 budget start at $6.3 million in 2012-13 and jump to $183.2 million by 2014-15. No details were given as to the potential effect these cuts could have on the Canada Student Loans Program.

Additionally, the government announced its plans to eliminate the penny. Pennies will no longer be produced and distributed to financial institutions starting in fall 2012, though the coins will still be allowed to be used in cash transactions.

Cuts to the CBC were also laid out in the document, starting with $27.8 million in savings in 2012-13 and rising to $115 million in 2014-15.

Similar to the 2011 budget, the Conservatives are aiming to lower the deficit to 1.3 billion by 2014-15 and achieve a 3.4 billion surplus by 2015-16.

Dubois warned that the government was trying to “balance the budget on the backs of students and older citizens,” while May felt there was another clear message for young people among the financial proposals.

“You’re the victims in this,” the Green Party leader told Canadian University Press. “Anybody younger than 50 is the part of the population that gets kicked in the teeth in this budget.”

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