CANADA: New government could commercialise HE

During the week after Stephen Harper's Conservative Party won its third consecutive election and was set to form it first majority government, questions remained over whether pledges to higher education articulated in the March budget that prompted a return to the polls - or those articulated on the electoral trail - would be honoured.

Chief among their electoral promises was the Conservatives' pledge to create 30 additional industrial research chairs for colleges and polytechnic institutions, 10 Canada Excellence Research Chairs, and other targeted funding for research and development.

Importantly, the party supports the greater commercialisation of post-secondary research so as to "ensure our investments deliver results."

But a day after its majority victory in a national election, James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, explained: "It's unclear at this time which path Harper will go down".

A first path would be to take Monday's victory to build a center-right government that would probably result in more consultation with the academic community. But a second path, he said, would see the government continue its mission to fundamentally break the social network built up since World War II.

Although both paths would have an enormous impact on education in Canada, Turk looks with some alarm at Harper's previous record of unprecedented politicisation of the three national granting councils - in which the research community is increasingly being served by targeted, politically motivated agendas rather than by objective peer-review processes.

In fact, Turk sees the ostensibly non-partisan agencies as becoming the organs of government, thus "making researchers partners or agents of private industry".

Time will tell how yesterday's election will impact on the situation at the other end of the higher education spectrum - the country's nearly 900,000 undergraduate and graduate students, whose loan debts are approaching C$14 billion ($14.8 billion).

During the campaign, all five major political parties pledged changes to the Canada Student Loans and Grants programme in response to a looming student loan crisis that David Molenhuis, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, described as "a recipe for disaster".

It was notable that during the electoral campaign the Conservatives avoided mention of various promises outlined in their doomed budget, like the C$34 million earmarked for the student programme - although the party did pledge to offer more support to part-time students.

In a twist of political fate, the one ambitious and creative solution to the crisis was proposed by the Liberal party, which was decimated at the polls.

Its 'Learning Passport' would have injected C$1 billion into a fund offering up to C$1,000 a year over four years for every Canadian high school student to use for higher education. (For lower income families, this amount would have been C$1,500 per year.)

But as the Liberals' fortunes wane, Canada's historic 'third party', the New Democratic Party, is reveling in its ascendancy.

As the new official opposition, it promises to agitate for an increase of federal transfer payments to the provinces for education. Increasing this amount to C$800 million, post-secondary institutions would be able to reduce tuition fees and invest in chronic faculty and staff shortages and much-needed infrastructural improvements.

Supplementing tuition relief, the party also proposed to inject C$200 million into the student grants programme and to raise the education tax credit limit by 17%.