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Margin Notes

What’s up for the year ahead?

A few thoughts on taxes, PSE spending and wanting it all.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | DEC 23 2009

A couple of weeks ago, the Canadian Association of University Teachers released the results of Harris-Decima poll taken in November which indicated 55 percent of those questioned think spending on postsecondary education should be increased even if taxes have to be raised. Further, 54 percent said governments are not doing enough for PSE, while 47 percent said the quality of PSE is suffering.  The results, generally speaking, are heartening.

But these sorts of snapshot polls often really don’t tell us that much. In the same poll, 48 percent said the main priority for new PSE funding should be to lower tuition. Well, that may improve access – although much research suggests not – but it most certainly won’t improve quality.

Which is to say, polls like these often show that we simply want it all – increased spending, improved programs, at lower cost. Now, it’s true that respondents to this poll did appear to be open to higher taxes. Fine. But most politicians seem to be rather allergic to that notion at the moment.

With our provincial and federal governments running massive deficits, I think higher spending on PSE has to be seen as a trade-off for cuts or frozen spending elsewhere, but where? Health care? Research and innovation? K-12 education? Social programs?

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said yesterday he’ll target the current federal deficit through attrition in the federal civil service and will also rely on economic growth to get finances back in balance, but those measures are only going to get him so far. For my money, I’d like to see the GST restored to seven percent, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has steadfastly refused to raise taxes, while also promising not to cut transfers to the provinces. It’s a nice message for a public willing to believe they can have it all, but it beggars reality.

Two former finance officials, C. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries, said it best in a Globe and Mail opinion piece in which they argue that a credible budget must increase taxes.

There is a strong case to be made for maintaining, if not increasing, PSE spending. It is an investment in our collective future. And I would actually be surprised to see major cuts to PSE this coming year. But, having said that, I do think we’re in for a mighty lean year in 2010 and that the biggest challenge for universities is how they respond to that.

We have already seen serious discontent among faculty at one institution, Lakehead University. The university announced back in April it was going to shut down for four days prior to Christmas and cut the wages of most employees during that time. The union strongly protested the move, claiming this is a clear violation of its collective agreement. The two sides have gone to arbitration. Let’s hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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