Federal budget initiatives aimed at improving access to post-secondary education and reducing student debt loads drew high marks from members of Canada's university community, although some said the measures didn't go far enough in improving access for students.
"The budget includes an integrated and focused approach that will transform the way Canadians view access to post-secondary education," said UBC President Martha Piper, following the budget announcement by Finance Minister Paul Martin Feb. 24.
"These measures are particularly relevant for B.C. We have one of the lowest participation rates in post-secondary education in the country. This will help us improve access," she said. "Restoration of funding to the major research granting agencies is also a very positive development that should result in a renewed flow of money into university research."
Paul Davenport, chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and president of the University of Western Ontario, also supported the budget, stating that measures to help lower student debt, improve access, and to restore funding to granting agencies reflect the government's commitment to knowledge and accessibility.
The budget included a number of tax incentives and new programs aimed at encouraging Canadians to pursue higher education by reducing financial barriers and making student debt loads easier to manage.
The Canadian Opportunities Strategy, costing in excess of $5.5 billion to the end of 2000-2001, includes a number of key elements that will affect students.
Canada Millennium Scholarships will be awarded annually to 100,000 full- and part-time students in financial need who demonstrate merit and who are studying in publicly funded institutions, including universities and colleges. Individuals can receive up to a maximum of $15,000 over four academic years of undergraduate education. Commencing in the year 2000, the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, with an initial immediate endowment of $2.5 billion, will award scholarships with the intent that the endowment will be drawn down by the year 2010. The foundation will be managed by a quasi-independent board of directors composed of private citizens.
Canada Study Grants of up to $3,000 a year will be given to some 25,000 students in financial need who have children or other dependents.
All students will be allowed a 17 per cent, non-refundable federal tax credit on the interest paid on their student loans. The Canada Student Loans Program will also be modified to extend interest relief to more students and to permit the deferral of repayments beyond the normal period.
Beginning in 1999, students can make tax-free withdrawals from their RRSPs provided they are enrolled in full-time education for at least three months during the year. Withdrawals must be repaid in installments over 10 years.
Part-time students will now be permitted to claim the education tax credit of $60 per month and can deduct child-care expenses.
However, some were not impressed with the budget and its implications for students and education.
Ryan Marshall, co-ordinator of external affairs for UBC's Alma Mater Society, applauded government efforts to improve access for students demonstrating need and merit, but expressed concern for students who will "fall through the cracks" before the scholarship program is implemented in 2000. And while the budget will help students deal with their debts, he said the government should take more action to ensure students are not forced to acquire large debts in the first place.
"They're using the balanced budget to put some money back into education, which is good. But it's a smaller amount than what they've already taken away."
UBC Economics Prof. Robert Allen, a nationally recognized expert on the economics of post-secondary education in Canada, also criticized the budget's contributions to post-secondary education.
"Except for the restoration of funding to the federal granting agencies, this budget does little for education, because it doesn't transfer money to universities. Since there is no extra money for universities, access to education is not improved at all."
All three of Canada's federally funded research and development granting councils, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), had their budgets restored -- to 1994-95 levels -- following several years of budget cuts.
"The renewed support for university research is very encouraging," said Bernie Bressler, UBC's vice-president, Research. "Cuts to the MRC, NSERC, and SSHRC budgets in recent years have taken a toll on university research across Canada. The restoration of funds to these agencies shows the government is recognizing the value of our contributions.
"This budget shows that the government has acknowledged the role of education and research in maintaining Canada's competitiveness in the global economy. Moreover, the government has recognized the critical need to provide students with skills and experience required to meet the challenges and opportunities of our growing knowledge-based economy."
NSERC President Thomas Brzustowski called the funding of the research councils an "extraordinarily important decision."
"Canada's young people will be very encouraged by the increased allocation for university research. It will help many of them directly to pursue postgraduate studies in research and to develop their talents to the full," he said.