Education will be election issue, student groups vow

Parties reveal competing visions for future of post-secondary

BURNABY, B.C. (CUP) — If post-secondary education is not a major election issue, it should be, Canada’s leading student groups say.

The Canadian Federation of Students and Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, representing 600,000 students across the country, have joined forces to call for increased federal funding for post-secondary education and propose measures to reduce student debt. They hope the major political parties will hear their demands.

“The clock is ticking, of course,” said Ian Boyko, CFS national chair, by telephone from Ottawa. “Because once the parties’ platforms are out, it makes it infinitely more difficult to try and change it.”

In a joint policy document released May 26, the student groups urge the federal government to increase transfer payments for post-secondary education to the provinces by $3.6 billion. They blame Liberal cutbacks during the 1990s for rising tuition fees in most provinces.

The student groups are also asking the government to exempt student grants from income taxes, establish a system of needs-based grants, rescind the 10-year bankruptcy prohibition on student loans, and reject loan repayment models based on income. Their demands aren’t limited to the education system though; the document also recommends federal funding for public transit and proportional representation in Parliament.

“If the Liberals can’t commit to making real change for post-secondary education,” Boyko said, “then we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they find themselves in a minority government position.”

While the Liberal Party has not issued its education platform, Hedy Fry, a member of Parliament from Vancouver, said the party aims to increase the proportion of Canadians with post-secondary education from 39 to 50 per cent over the next decade. She said it is looking at ways to expand and change the tools available to help students finance their education.

According to Fry, the Liberals want to expand the federal government’s role in education beyond funding to have a hand in its administration, which falls under provincial jurisdiction.

“We have to come up with a cost-sharing venture to allow us to work with the provinces,” the MP said. “It may be that if we could do that, we could help them to bring down tuition, or at least not raise tuition anymore.”

Fry hinted Prime Minister Paul Martin would announce more money for post-secondary education. She blamed the lower levels of funding in the 1990s on the Brian Mulroney government.

“I think it’s a bum rap to say that we cut,” she said.

A representative for the Conservative Party said that until its platform is made public, the party isn’t prepared to comment on specific issues.

The New Democratic Party’s platform advocates lowering tuition fees by 10 per cent, as well as upping federal funding to support a nation-wide tuition freeze. It calls for more funding for research to stop the privatisation of research on campus. The NDP wants to replace the Millennium Scholarship Fund with needs-based grants, and supports crediting interest accumulated on student loans against graduates’ income taxes.

One key issue in post-secondary education, according to Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec spokesperson Nick Vikander, is the plight of international students. Although international students typically pay higher tuition fees than their domestic counterparts, they aren’t allowed to work off-campus in most provinces.

“It’s a really difficult situation for them,” Vikander said from Montréal. “We’re asking the federal government, at least as a first step, to allow them to work part-time to help them meet some of their needs.”

The Bloc Québécois takes up this cause in their platform. The party also demands the federal government increase its transfer payments for education to Québec.

Christophe Fortier-Guay, spokesperson for the Bloc’s youth wing, said the party is concerned about federal interest in playing a greater role in education.

“It is starving the provinces by not giving the money that they need in education,” he said from Montréal. “What happens next is — when they have financial problems like we have now — they come with a cheque. But this cheque comes with conditions, national Canadian priorities.”

A Liberal or Conservative minority government, Fortier-Guay said, might help the Bloc achieve some of its aims in Parliament.

While the Green Party platform states it wants to reduce the “up-front cost” of tuition fees, the party’s Halifax candidate said their ultimate goal is to make post-secondary education free.

“We’d like to move to it as quickly as possible,” said Michael Oddy, the Greens’ education critic. “Because we see it as in the public interest to have a well-funded, publicly accessible education system from early childhood through to university graduation.”

Charles Ungerleider, sociology of education professor at the University of British Columbia, called the affordability of post-secondary education a crucial issue for students — one he expects the major parties to address with commitments that are more specific as the campaign rolls on.

“That shouldn’t be the dividing line in Canada,” the professor said from a Richmond shopping mall. “We’re too rich a nation to allow the ability to pay to be the distinguishing feature between those who go and those who don’t.”

Voters head to the polls June 28.