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Millennium foundation winds down

As one of the few groups funding national research on student access to university and college, demise of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation will leave a gap

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | OCT 05 2009

The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation will begin to wind down its operations early next year, leaving behind a big void in the type of postsecondary research carried out in this country, observers say.

“I think the foundation has made a tremendous contribution to how we understand student access issues in Canada,” said Gary Evans, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s director of government relations. “I think it will be missed for sure.”

The federal government in its 2008 budget said it wouldn’t renew the foundation’s mandate after it expires in 2010. Instead, this fall it launched a new student grant program operated by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to replace the Millennium Bursaries and the Millennium Access Bursaries distributed by the CMSF since 2000. No provision was made to replace the merit scholarships distributed by the foundation through its Millennium Excellence Awards.

The foundation’s ability to make awards will expire in January. After that it will be wound down and dissolved by July 2010, according to the CMSF website. Its final annual report for the 2009 fiscal year as well as its final research reports will be published before that time. CMSF officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

The foundation was launched a decade ago to increase participation in colleges and universities of low-income students and other under-represented groups, such as aboriginal and rural students. Since 2000 it has delivered some 750,000 bursaries and scholarships valued at more than $2 billion. It also funded an extensive research program to study barriers that impede access to postsecondary education for these groups and identify policies to alleviate the barriers.

Its research efforts were heralded from the start, in part because it was one of the few national organizations to fund research on postsecondary issues, usually considered a provincial undertaking. The foundation created a national repository for the research efforts of disparate groups and scholars working on student financial aid and access to higher education. “One of the reasons the foundation has been so successful is that it had a very focused mandate… on student access issues,” said AUCC’s Mr. Evans, who worked there for a time.

He cited the foundation’s bursaries as one of the reasons why student debt levels, which ratcheted up substantially in the 1990s, have leveled off in recent years. AUCC welcomed the federal government’s decision to continue providing grants to needy students through the new Canada Student Grants Program, said Mr. Evans. But the association believes there should be an independent third party to coordinate and support research on postsecondary access, much as the CMSF has done, he added.

One of the hallmarks of the foundation’s research program was the Price of Knowledge, a biennial report that analyzed trends in participation rates, tuition levels, student debt, financial aid and government spending on postsecondary education, among other things. The CMSF also hosted research and policy conferences and funded several pilot projects in high schools across Canada to test the effectiveness of early interventions and alternative approaches to encourage greater participation of under-represented groups in college
and university.

The foundation plans to partner with the YMCA of Greater Toronto and other organizations to present the inaugural conference of the Canadian Postsecondary Access Partnership. The three-day conference, scheduled to take place in Toronto in late October, includes workshops and panel discussions on ways to broaden access to postsecondary education. In November the CMSF will hold its wind-down conference, also in Toronto.

Research supported by the foundation was among the first to identify the importance of non-financial barriers such as family background and academic performance in determining who goes to university and college and who doesn’t. “That’s part of the foundation’s legacy,” said Sean Junor. “It was able to raise awareness on the accessibility file and broaden the discussion beyond lack of money.” Mr. Junor worked at CMSF in its early years and now is a human resources specialist at Cameco Corp. in Saskatoon.

But the foundation’s focus on non-financial barriers also ruffled feathers and led to heated debates, especially among some student groups who vehemently rejected these findings and argued that high tuition was the main impediment to improving access to higher education. “That was probably the biggest frustration,” Mr. Junor said.

“[The foundation] certainly generated a lot of controversy,” said David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He explained that the controversy arose partly because the foundation, on the one hand, provided financial assistance to students while, on the other hand, it funded research that – in the opinion of some groups – ran counter to its first objective. “Our own particular view was that the real focus of the fund should have been on distributing money to students, as was its original raison d’être,” said Mr. Robinson.

Ross Finnie, professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs and research director of a major CMSF-funded project, said there are several proposals to take over the foundation’s research function but it isn’t clear if any of them will be approved.

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