CANADA: Positive budget for higher education defeated

Although welcomed as positive for Canadian higher education, the budget bill delivered by Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government on Tuesday, 22 March, did not survive long. Instead, its rejection promises to become the centrepiece of a federal election platform.

Three days after the budget, Canada's opposition Liberal party introduced a motion of no confidence on Friday after pointing to the government's "flagrant disregard" for democracy and what they see as a failed economic agenda. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was then forced the next day to call an election, which will take place 2 May.

Aspects of the budget suggested a turning point in government strategy on higher education funding. Indeed, it had been hailed for its recognition of Canadian universities' vital role in promoting productivity and innovation in the global economy - after years of insidious cutbacks.

Paul Davidson, President of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, extolled the budget as representing "tremendous progress for the university sector".

He pointed to C$37 million (US$37.7 million) earmarked annually for the three federal research granting councils, along with C$53.5 million over five years to create 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs.

Nearly C$250 million had been promised for strategic research initiatives led by or involving Canadian universities over the next six years.

The proposed budget also came out strongly in favour of digital innovation, seeking to help position Canada as a leader in the creation, adoption and use of digital technologies and content. Some C$60 million would be invested over three years in promoting student enrolments in key disciplines related to the digital economy.

International students and researchers would have benefited from more concerted efforts to support international initiatives and research collaborations as part of an international education strategy that was to receive C$10 million over the next two years.

However, in attempting to grapple with escalating federal student loan debts - estimated to have ballooned to C$15 billion - fissures in the budget became apparent.

Pumping C$34 million more into Canada Student Loans and Grants is all well and good, but this measure is too little, too late, said David Molenhuis, National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students soon after the budget came out: "Without a national strategy for higher education, tuition fees and student debt will continue to increase, threatening to bankrupt a generation."

Notwithstanding, compared with the deep cuts to higher education budgets elsewhere in the world, these investments, said Noreen Golfman, President of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, send "a clear message to the world that [Canada] intends to stay on the leading edge, that innovation and critical thinking are essential and non-negotiable - in good times and tough times."

But, with an election now in motion, it is moot whether Canada will be able to live up to these budgetary expectations.