Ignatieff looks to education in election strategy

NationalPost.com – news/Canada/politics
Sunday, Mar. 6, 2011.   Meagan Fitzpatrick, Postmedia News · Ottawa

On his recent cross-country tours, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has talked often about post-secondary education and how his party plans to make it more affordable so that, “if you get the grades, you get to go.”

Does that mean free tuition? More scholarships? And if so, how would an Ignatieff-led government pay for it?

Canadians will have to wait until an election to find out — and with polls showing the Tories strafing majority territory, that could be a very long wait. The Liberals are keeping details of their “pan-Canadian learning strategy” under wraps until it’s time for a campaign.

But what is in plain sight is that Mr. Ignatieff, with his close personal ties to academia, is trying hard to set his party apart from the Conservatives. He thinks education is an issue that can help him do that.

In a recent speech to the Liberal caucus, he said Canadians need to know that the Liberals will support them if their children require help with post-secondary education.

“We’ve got to be there for them when they’re saying, ‘How am I possibly going to afford post-secondary education?’ Especially in Aboriginal communities, especially in immigrant communities, especially in those working-class families that have never had any member of their family go to college or university before,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “We’ve got to be able to say, ‘you get the grades, you get to go.’ ”

Mr. Ignatieff has painted only the broad strokes of his learning plan: ensuring post-secondary education is affordable and investing in early learning and child care, Aboriginal education, literacy programs, language training for immigrants and skills training. But he promises the plan will help create jobs, and he argues that the Conservative government should be investing more in education to boost Canada’s economic recovery instead of giving billions of dollars worth of tax breaks to businesses.

So the Liberals will try to convince Canadians they are the party to trust when it comes to social programs. They may have their work cut out for them, however, given that it was a Liberal government that slashed health and social transfer payments to the provinces in the late 1990s by billions of dollars.

Schools hiked their tuition fees to make up the gap and students and their families bore the brunt of the increases.

In addition, post-secondary education falls under provincial, not federal, jurisdiction.

Even so, Ottawa’s coffers are the source of $10-billion worth of “direct and indirect” financial support for students and schools, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Through loans, grants, transfers to the provinces, tax credits and other programs, the federal government has more to do with post-secondary education than some may realize:

• The Canada Social Transfer payments, worth $3.5-billion this year for the post-secondary education portion, are paid annually to the provinces. The transfer agreements expire in 2013-2014 so whichever party is in power as the deadline approaches will have the task of renegotiating a multibillion-dollar deal.

• Ottawa operates a student loan and grant program that in 2009-2010 gave $500-million in grants to 290,000 students and about $2-billion in loans to 400,000.

• There are a number of education-related tax credits including the education tax credit, the textbook tax credit and the tuition tax credit.

• The federal government also offers Registered Education Savings Plans to encourage Canadians to save for their children’s education, and it funds the Canada Education Savings Grant and the Canada Learning Bond.

The Canadian Federation of Students says that while tax credits and savings programs are helpful, they tend to be more beneficial to higher-income families and can be of little use if the cost of college or university is too high in the first place.

What students really want is a reduction in the upfront cost of post-secondary education: tuition.

According to the CFS, Ottawa spent $2.5-billion on the tax credits and savings programs in 2009-2010. It would rather see the federal government pump that money into the grants program.

What the federation really wants from Ottawa, however, is a long-term plan for higher education.

“Canada is one of the last countries on the planet that doesn’t have a vision for post-secondary education,” said David Molenhuis, CFS national chairman. “What would be great to see from the federal political parties is to start thinking more big-picture politics when it comes to guaranteeing every Canadian the right to access the colleges and universities that they pay for through the tax system.”

Will Mr. Ignatieff’s still-vague learning strategy be the vision Mr. Molenhuis is looking for?

“The rhetoric certainly sounds promising, but what are we going to see in terms of this learning strategy, the actual implementation of these rhetorical statements?” said Mr. Molenhuis.

The “soft language” from Mr. Ignatieff on education indicates “he’s practising what he’s going to be preaching on the campaign trail,” according to John Wright, senior vice-president of public affairs at Ipsos Reid polling firm.

Whether the funding of post-secondary education, and Mr. Ignatieff’s “you get the grades, you get to go” tagline resonates with Canadians will depend on how the theme fits in with the Liberals’ larger platform, said Mr. Wright.

“It’s a provincial matter, so it’s not top of mind that Canadians associate the federal government with the funding of post-secondary education,” said Mr. Wright, who suggested it could work if it’s tied to a job strategy of some sort that would appeal to all Canadians, not just students and their parents.

“It might be one of the things that they put together as part of their platform but in and of itself, it’s not something that lights a fire under people,” he said.

Mr. Ignatieff has said that investing in education is key to Canada’s economic recovery and voters can expect to hear a lot more of that kind of language during a campaign.

“If you want a big public argument about what is likely to create more jobs in the future for Canadians I will bet on education versus corporate tax cuts any day of the week,” Mr. Wright says.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article. As a teacher and parent I of course value education over corporate tax cuts. Ignatieff should return the transfer payments. That would solve most of the educational funding problems in the schools and those problems right now are legion. I notice in the election for May 2 Ignatieff is also touting ‘early education for every child’. Again this is a problematic promise given that first of all, you can’t keep kids from learning, that’s what they do wherever they are and it is an empty promise. But we all know he is speaking in code, promising a free daycare space for every child and the big labor unions have doubtless advised him to sell this as ‘early education’ because it sounds more palatable. Ignatieff has been led down a garden path though. First a space for every child, used or not, would cost $20 billion a year and the daycare budget right now is more like $5 billion a year. He is only promising in fact ‘access’ to one of the spaces and is hoping most people won’t take him up on it first, and second that they’ll nonetheless be overjoyed to have their taxes fund it for those who do. This inequality of funding, the creation of losers and winners, he is dubbing ‘early education’. Come to think of it, it is that. As soon as you become a parent you learn very early that the state is not going to be there for you except to find a stranger to tend your child. Maybe that’s worth knowing, especially voting day.

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