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CANADA: $2 billion puts new coat of paint on universities
Canadian universities and their aging infrastructure have received a promised injection of C$2 billion (US$1.65 billion), part of a five-year $85 billion stimulus package announced by the federal government last week. Universities in Canada are not alone in calling for more government spending to improve their buildings and facilities; their counterparts elsewhere have made the same demand, asking their governments to spend their way out of the economic crisis, most notably in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

With many of its buildings erected in the late 1960s and early '70s, and operating budgets in the ensuing decades not keeping up with costs, Canada's universities have deferred a lot of needed maintenance and repair projects. Current estimates of necessary repairs total more than $5 billion, of which close to half are said to be urgent. The infrastructure money announced by the government should answer many of those emergencies.

The targeted money to the university sector, however, will go beyond crumbling historic buildings and leak-prone libraries: $750 million has been set aside for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation which equips laboratories and other research infrastructure; $50 million for the Institute for Quantum Computing to build a new facility; and $87 million toward Arctic research in Canada which has had to rely on the kindness of other international researchers for much of its field work. There is also $87.5 million in short-term funds for graduate scholarships.

The association representing universities seemed ready to begin calling up contractors. "Universities will identify projects that are ready to go and will deal with urgent maintenance issues such as upgrading buildings, labs and research facilities," said Tom Traves, chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and president of Dalhousie University.

But the association representing professors was more critical of the budget for what it left out: "Budget 2009 offers very little for the academic research community," wrote the Canadian Association of University Teachers in an analysis of the budget, focusing on reductions to the upcoming base budgets by the granting councils.

"The absence of new money for the granting agencies, in comparison with the substantial increase in the United States, will make it more difficult for Canada to attract and retain top researchers," it wrote, alluding to a recent US$150 billion in new federal spending tabled for its department of education, the US Department of Education, including a US$15.6 billion increase to Pell grants.

Student groups also cast a forlorn look southward. "Although we're satisfied to see money for campus buildings, we were expecting a better effort to tackle student debt and student unemployment," said Katherine Giroux-Bougard, National Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. "Compared to what's on the table for American universities and colleges, this budget is underwhelming."

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