Finally, good public policy


Yesterday, Stéphane Dion’s unveiled his post-secondary education platform.

The platform proposes to replace current federal tax credits with in-study grants; provide significant relief for student loan borrowers in their repayment phase; create more needs-based grants, with each grant having greater value than currently planned under the Canada Student Grant Program; guarantee every student a loan of $5,000; provide more funding for university research; offer tax credits for private sector research; and increase funding to universities for the indirect costs of research.

In short, the announcement had something for everyone–almost.

There was one group that did not get any new free money: students from upper-income families. The only change for them is they now have access to a $5,000 loan and they keep benefiting from the funds they currently receive from federal tax credits (but in a new way).

This is a refreshing change, and hopefully a watershed moment in Canadian higher education policy. For the past few years, governments have focused on “aid” schemes that amounted to little more than bribing voters with promises of free money.

A recent trend are grants for “textbooks” and “technology.” Both the federal Conservative government and Ontario Liberal government have implemented these schemes.

The federal “textbook tax credit” is a tax credit worth about $80 for students who have enough income to take advantage of it while in school. It’s a universal tax credit which benefits poor and rich students equally. In effect, it’s the same as the already existing education tax credit. Just a fancy name for the purposes of a photo-op.

The Ontario “textbook and technology grant” is a $150 mail-in rebate cheque that all post-secondary students in Ontario can apply for. Students don’t receive the money until October and only if they know to apply for it. This “grant” is worse public policy than the federal “textbook tax credit.” Not only does it do nothing to address access issues, it costs millions of dollars to administer. Instead of lowering tuition increase by $150, the Ontario government is spending millions to create an administrative structure to print cheques that amount to little more than political propaganda funded by taxpayers.

The result of these recent policies is hundreds of millions of dollars being wasted on schemes that do nothing to assist students who need help. Meanwhile, raises in the cost of obtaining a post-secondary education have outstripped support for the neediest students and made it more difficult to obtain a post-secondary education, especially an university education.Dion’s proposal focuses on students who need support and isn’t a mere vote buying scheme. The amount of the grants is significant enough that they will actually make a difference. They are focused where they can make the greatest amount of difference and no money is wasted on schemes that benefit the rich as much as the poor.

It may be the latter reality that has the Canadian Federation of Students upset at the proposal. The CFS prefers tuition cuts over these targeted grants. Aside from the fact that the federal government doesn’t deal with tuition as it is a provincial responsibility, this position is insane because the CFS knows that tuition cuts benefit upper-income students and needier students equally. Yet, they continue to fight for tuition cuts instead of focusing on needs-based grants. It makes you wonder who they really work for…

The New Democrats and the Conservatives will be unveiling their post-secondary platforms in the next few weeks. Hopefully, they show good policy sense as the Liberal have.