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University sector responds favourably to federal budget

Organizations praise funding boosts for campus infrastructure, research and financial aid, but more could be done for indigenous students, some say.

By NATALIE SAMSON | MAR 23 2016

The university sector responded swiftly to the first budget released by the federal Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 22. The government pledged billions of dollars that will directly and indirectly benefit postsecondary education through funding for infrastructure, research and innovation, financial assistance, youth jobs and skills training, and indigenous education.

“This government understands that universities are best able to drive immediate economic stimulus and longer-term prosperity through infrastructure projects, through research and by ensuring students have the skills they need,” said Elizabeth Cannon, chair of Universities Canada and president of the University of Calgary. Dr. Cannon’s statement specifically commended the federal government’s $2-billion investment in a new strategic infrastructure fund for postsecondary institutions and the $95 million annual increase to the federal research granting councils. According to Universities Canada, research funding in Canada fell from third to eighth among OECD nations between 2006 and 2013. The budget’s collective investment in research, innovation and infrastructure initiatives show the government recognizes that “universities empower Canadians and empower communities,” said Universities Canada president Paul Davidson.

Stephen Toope, president of the Federation for the Humanities and the Social Sciences, acknowledged that this budget reflects “the highest amount in new annual funding for discovery research in more than a decade.” He praised the government, which has pledged an additional $16 million to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, for “taking steps … to rebalance its investments in a way that better recognizes the contributions of humanities and social sciences research in building Canada’s future.”

Council of Ontario Universities president and CEO David Lindsay released a statement praising the government for a budget that shows a “belief that investing in students and research and innovation is key to well-being and prosperity in today’s and tomorrow’s knowledge-based economy.”

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the 2016 budget is “a welcome first step,” but there remains “a long way to go to make up for lost ground.” Mr. Robinson focused on “big holes in the budget” including a lack of new funding for indigenous students to access postsecondary education.

Meanwhile, the national organizations representing students responded favourably to the announcement of increased access to financial assistance for low-income, middle-income and part-time students and to additional investment in co-ops, internships and work opportunities. In a statement released by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, interim executive director Viviane Bartlett said these funding commitments reflect “the need to make postsecondary education more affordable” and to “support students through experiential learning opportunities.” However, they echoed CAUT’s disappointment in a lack of new funding for indigenous postsecondary students. Bilan Arte, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students said financial support for indigenous students in postsecondary institutions is “not only economically smart for Canada, but morally required as part of our commitment to truth and reconciliation.”

An analysis prepared by Higher Education Strategy Associates noted the budget puts the government in a total deficit of $29.4 billion, a far cry from the $10 billion promised during the 2015 election and the $22 billion expected following a February financial update. Overall, HESA gave the budget high marks, calling the financial aid announcements “excellent news” as it will mean faster pay-outs and improved transparency. HESA equally praised the granting council funding, but was less complimentary to the commitments for infrastructure, which show an “astonishing lack of detail”; and for innovation and skills development, on which the government seems not “fluent with either the language or the issues.”

Budget 2016 and postsecondary education by the numbers

Infrastructure

The 2016 budget has earmarked $2 billion over three years for the new Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund, which will offer short-term investments to cover up to 50 percent of eligible costs related to infrastructure projects at postsecondary institutions. The fund, a collaboration between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, could support initiatives like converting existing campus space into research labs, entrepreneurship hubs and business accelerators, research commercialization centres, or retrofits to make buildings more energy efficient.

Research and innovation

Research and innovation funding includes an additional $95 million per year to the research granting councils: $30 million to Canadian Institutes of Health Research, $30 million to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, $16 million to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and $19 million to the Research Support Fund for the indirect costs covered by postsecondary institutions undertaking federally sponsored research.

Other organizations and initiatives addressed include: Genome Canada ($237.2 million in 2016–17); Canada Excellence Research Chairs ($20 million over eight years for two new CERCS in clean and sustainable technology); Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s the freshwater research program ($197.1 million over five years); innovation networks and clusters ($800 million over four years); clean technology research and development ($50 million over four years to Sustainable Development Technology Canada, $82.5 million over two years to Natural Resources Canada); federal science facilities (an additional $87.2 million for Natural Resources Canada labs, $8.7 million for Canadian Space Agency projects, $18.5 million for the National Research Council of Canada, particularly in shipbuilding, deep water mining, search and rescue); the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics ($50 million over five years); the Centre for Drug Research and Development ($32 million over two years); Stem Cell Network ($12 million over two years); Brain Canada Foundation’s research fund ($20 million over three years).

The budget also revealed that Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan will undertake a comprehensive review of federal support of fundamental science. The review will focus on the impact that support has had on research excellence, current granting council practices and priorities, opportunities for emerging researchers and emerging research collaborations.

Student loans

The Canada Student Grant will be increased by 50 percent: $3,000 per year from $2,000 for students from low-income families; $1,200 per year from $800 for students from middle-income families; and $1,800 per year from $1,200 for part-time students. These increases come with the elimination of the Education and Textbook Tax Credits on Jan. 1, 2017.

The budget proposes an increase to the loan repayment scheme which would see students begin to repay Canada Student Loans once they’re earning $25,000 a year. It also proposes a flat-rate student contribution to determine loan eligibility so that students may work while studying without fear of impacting the amount of financial assistance they receive.

Youth jobs and skills training

The government has set aside $73 million over four years for its forthcoming Post-Secondary Industry Partnership and Cooperative Placement Initiative. The project will support partnerships between postsecondary institutions and employers and to create experiential education opportunities for students focusing in science, technology, engineering, math and business.

Funding has also been announced for the Mitacs Globalink internship program ($14 million over two years); a youth employment strategy (an additional $165.4 million for green jobs, work transition programs and heritage sector jobs); $105 million over five years for a yet-to-be-named youth service program; union-based apprenticeship training program ($85.4 million over five years).

Indigenous education

The federal government plans to invest $2.6 billion over five years for primary and secondary on-reserve education (this includes money previously allocated in the 2014 budget). The budget also announced $15 million over two years for a pilot project called Renewal of Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy to enhance training needs as defined by individual communities.

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