Searching for a higher education strategy

Today, the good folks over at Higher Education Strategy Associates released their long-awaited analysis of the party platforms regarding post-secondary education. They were clearly rejigging parts of the analysis right up to the end – the document is larded with pictures of the party leaders taken from

The analysis looks at federal education policy proposals under main headings: Student Aid, Transfers to Provinces and Institutions, Research, and Apprenticeships. The section on student aid takes up over half the analysis, largely because – as the report points out:

Looking across all party platforms, one is struck by how much the cost of postsecondary education dominates all other issues. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking this was the only issue that mattered to federal parties.

Details on education transfers are notable for their absence in the Conservative and Liberal platforms and for their incoherence in the New Democrat one. Apart from a Conservative regurgitation of last month’s budget, policies on scientific research are essentially absent. And everyone apparently thinks Apprenticeships are a Good Thing but not so good as to actually require policy. Apart from these topics, only the New Democrats have shown any ambition at all in the area, with their promises on childcare and Aboriginal Education. Within PSE itself, the lack of vision and ideas is palpable.

The upshot is that federal approaches to higher education amount to this: The Conservatives are offering slight tweaks to the existing student aid system, while the NDP are proposing to just throw more cash at it. The HESA analysis credits the Liberals with having “the most intriguing and certainly the best thought-out” platform regarding student aid; the Learning Passport idea is the only one that hints at re-imagining the way student aid works, and the only one that promises to inject even a modicum of progressivity into the system.

But overall, the analysis is pretty depressing. Jean Chretien was the last prime minister to make a serious effort at providing federal leadership in higher education and to have a vision for the role higher education can play in a modern economy, but that was fifteen years ago. Since then, federal policy has been a wasteland of boutique tax breaks and minor tweaks to student aid. Any grander conviction that a country’s universities are among its most crucial institutions, and that supporting those institutions is in the national interest, is completely absent.

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