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Modest budget finds funds for postsecondary sector

Restructured student grants program, international graduate scholarships, slight research boost among budget items

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAR 10 2008

The federal budget delivered in February was described as modest by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and the postsecondary education community appeared modestly pleased with what was in it.

The budget sent a “relatively positive message” about the role of postsecondary education in the country’s future, said Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University and chairman of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. While some of the budget items were not funded to the level that the association would have liked, “it’s clear that universities do have a central place in this government’s agenda,” he said.

The big news for PSE is that the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation will be wound down in 2009 and replaced by a new Canada Student Grant Program. In addition, the government announced a new high-profile graduate scholarship program, named in honour of former governor general Georges Vanier, to attract top Canadian and international scholars to Canadian campuses.

The new scholarships, worth $50,000 a year, will support 500 doctoral students a year when the program is fully in place in 2010-11. “We simply have not had a flagship scholarship program like this,” said Dr. Traves, adding that this is “an excellent first step.”

The budget also contained a sprinkling of additional research spending, much of it targeted to areas the government identified as priorities.

Student grants

The new student grants program will receive funding of $350 million in 2009-10, the same level of grant support offered now by the Millennium foundation. That will rise to $430 million by 2012-13. As well, $138 million in funding that currently goes to various study grants through the Canada Student Loans Program will be folded into the new program. The budget also commits $123 million over four years, starting in 2009-10, to streamline and modernize the CSLP.

The new grants are aimed at students from low- and middle-income families who will qualify based on family income levels. Students from low-income families will receive $250 a month, while those classified as coming from middle-income families will get $100 a month. In the first year, the new grant is expected to reach 245,000 college and undergraduate students, an increase of more than 100,000 students from the number now receiving debt remission and grants.

“If you’re going to have a federal system of student grants, this is probably the way to do it,” said Alex Usher, Canadian director of the Educational Policy Institute, an independent educational policy think tank. He noted that the new grants will be delivered based on applicants’ income, rather than “need,” which he said will ensure that more of the available funds go to low-income people. The new program is very similar to the Pell Grant program in the U.S. and represents great progress “from where we were 10 years ago,” he said. “In the broad picture, this is a better system for students than the one we’ve been working with.”

Research funds

On the research front, the budget provides an additional $80 million to the three federal research granting agencies – $34 million for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; $34 million for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and $12 million for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This represents an overall increase of just under five percent in their combined base budgets.

As was the case in last year’s budget, the new funding is targeted to specific areas. The funding for NSERC is for collaborative research in Canada’s automotive, manufacturing, forestry and fishing sectors. The CIHR funds will target research on “the health needs of northern communities, health problems associated with environmental conditions, and food and drug safety,” while SSHRC’s extra funding is supposed to contribute to a “better understanding of how the environment affects the lives of Canadians and of the social and economic development needs of northern communities.”

Noreen Golfman, president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, said she was pleased to see that the three granting councils received increases, particularly in light of the finance minister’s efforts to lower expectations before the budget. “But it’s not all good news,” she said.

Last year, all of SSHRC’s and NSERC’s increases were targeted to government-determined priorities, and this year CIHR’s increases were as well, she noted. None of these priorities were determined with input from the research community, she said. “This is going in the wrong direction. … We fear this kind of thematic targeting could ultimately compromise the quality of basic research in Canada.”

The 2008 budget allocates an additional $15 million to the indirect costs of research, raising the overall investment to $330 million annually, an increase of just under five percent. Because direct costs of research have increased even more, this move actually means a lower reimbursement rate on the direct costs of research, down to 25 percent in 2008-09 from 25.4 percent in the current year, according to AUCC’s calculation.

The budget provides $21 million over two years to establish up to 20 prestigious Canada Global Excellence Research Chairs. Each chair holder will receive up to $10 million over seven years. The new chairs will be offered in four priority areas: the environment, natural resources and energy, health, and information and communication technologies.

Other budget highlights related to PSE include:

  • an additional $140 million in 2007-08 for Genome Canada;
  • $250 million over five years to support automotive research;
  • $22 million over two years, growing to $37 million per year by 2012-13, to improve the management and efficiency of the immigration system, including programs and policies related to international students;
  • $20-million endowment to the Gairdner Foundation, which will rename its annual awards the Canada Gairdner International Awards.
  • $5 million a year in the next two years for the operating costs of the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan.
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