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Universities overlooked in the election campaign

Despite the many demands of stakeholders in the academic community, postsecondary education struggles to capture candidates’ attention.

BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | SEP 13 2021

With the pandemic dominating the debates since the start of the federal election campaign, university education and research are flying a bit under the radar. Yet universities are at the heart of many issues essential to Canada’s future.

The health crisis has shown the limits of tuition-based university funding. Last August, Statistics Canada estimated that universities could lose up to $2.5 billion in projected revenue for 2020-2021, due in large part to the decline in student enrolment from abroad.

“Universities have been excluded from a number of financial assistance programs during the pandemic,” noted David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). “The next federal government will have to provide them with concrete assistance in addressing the systemic problems they face.”

Mr. Robinson would like to see a new financial agreement between the federal and provincial governments with regard to postsecondary education, along the same lines as the national daycare program. “At present, federal transfers to the provinces in support of postsecondary education are too small, don’t increase enough, and their use by the provinces is not very transparent,” he said. In 2020, just over $4.5 billion from the Canada Social Transfer was, in theory, allocated to postsecondary education.

Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada (the organization that publishes University Affairs), pointed out that Canada has a severe shortage of qualified workers. “Universities play a crucial role in training new talents and attracting them from abroad,” he noted. “But global competition is fierce, and Canada needs to invest to ensure that our institutions remain attractive.”

Mr. Davidson also highlights the urgent need for investments in physical and digital infrastructure on campuses. According to Universities Canada, the country’s universities need at least $7 billion for infrastructure programs and over $17 billion for deferred maintenance projects. “They need to adapt certain facilities to health requirements related to COVID-19 or to reduce their carbon footprint, which involves expenses that the federal government can help to cover,” he argued.


Read more: $7 billion of shovel-ready infrastructure projects identified across Canadian universities


Supporting Francophones

In 2020, the federal government intervened at the last minute to save the launch of the Université de l’Ontario Français. Shortly thereafter, Campus Saint-Jean in Alberta, Laurentian University and Saint Paul University in Ontario, announced cuts to their French-language course offerings.

“University education in French outside Quebec plays an important role, particularly when it comes to reaching the federal goals of having 25 per cent of Canadians being bilingual by 2036,supporting francophone communities outside of Quebec, and attracting francophone immigrants,” said Lynn Brouillette, president and CEO of the Association des collèges et universités de la francophonie canadienne (ACUFC).

The ACUFC has called for a public policy statement recognizing the civic mission of postsecondary educational institutions in communities where Francophones are in the linguistic minority, as well as a new permanent support program. It also wants the federal government to use the Official Languages Act to incite federal agencies to imagine innovative ways of supporting these institutions.

The parties’ main promises

NDP

  • Eliminate interest on federal student loans and establish a targeted debt forgiveness program for graduates.
  • Ban unpaid internships outside of education programs.

Liberal Party

  • Add 1,000 research professorships in Canada and create a $75 million annual fund to help colleges and universities bring their research results to market.
  • Hire 1,200 new mental health counsellors at postsecondary educational institutions.
  • Suspend student loan payments for new parents until their youngest child is five years old.
  • Eliminate interests on student loans in Canada and increase the threshold for the Repayment Assistance Plan to $50,000 for unmarried student borrowers.

Green Party

  • Eliminate tuition fees for postsecondary education.
  • Cancel student loan debt.
  • Retroactively implement the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for students.
  • Allocate $10 billion to fund federal-provincial transfers to universities and colleges.

Conservative Party

  • A new $30 million annual budget envelope to provide funding to Francophone postsecondary educational institutions in linguistic minority settings.
  • Promote freedom of expression on campus.

Sources: Le Devoir and the parties’ electoral platforms

Helping students

Having been heavily affected by the pandemic, the overall student community has its own needs and expectations as well. “Students are often forgotten in federal election campaigns, even though they represent our country’s future,” said Alannah Mckay, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). “We’ve launched a campaign called Generation Vote to encourage them to vote, and to make our key demands known.”

The CFS calls for the elimination of tuition fees and the establishment of student debt alleviation programs, as well as a national universal childcare program, rent control, investments in affordable housing and food security assistance. It demands full funding of postsecondary education for all First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, and an investment in Indigenous language programs. Finally, it calls for unrestricted access to public healthcare for international students and the elimination of differential fees.

Funding basic research

University research is another topic that’s rarely addressed in election campaigns. “But the pandemic has shown that science has a crucial role to play in supporting political leaders’ decision-making processes and overcoming major crises,” said Jean-Pierre Perreault, vice-president of research and graduate studies at Université de Sherbrooke and president of Acfas.

Acfas wants the government to increase funding for basic research and support for young research talent and student researchers. It hopes to see a significant increase in the number and value of scholarships awarded to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows by federal granting agencies.

Paul Dufour, a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, noted that the report from the advisory board for the federal government’s Fundamental Science Review was calling for a rapid increase in basic research funding as far back as 2017. “It was long-term research — including research at universities — that made it possible to develop COVID-19 vaccines so quickly, offering a spectacular example of how important this type of exploration can be,” he argued.

As a member of the board of directors at the Science and Policy Exchange, Mr. Dufour also believes that the federal government should support the creation of interfaces between the research community and society at large. “The tensions and disinformation we’ve seen around vaccines and climate change clearly demonstrate that the dialogue between science and society is an essential issue.”

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