Universities promised stimulus flexibility

Posted on March 10, 2009 in Education Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – National – Universities promised stimulus flexibility

OTTAWA, TORONTO and HALIFAX — Ottawa is promising to give Canada’s provinces and universities wide latitude in how to spend a $2-billion construction fund, tamping down concerns it is trying to control the cash for federal priorities.

Speaking in Halifax yesterday, Industry Minister Tony Clement said the money will not be limited to science and technology, after sparring with some provinces and university officials over funding goals.

“My research and development includes humanities,” Mr. Clement told reporters.

“When we think of R&D, we think a lot more broadly than test-tubes and Bunsen burners. That’s part of it, but the other part of it is research into the humanities, into the arts. All of that is absolutely included.”

Some provinces – particularly Ontario – and some university officials argue that education is a provincial jurisdiction and the universities should make the decisions on where the cash should be spent. Ottawa wants the money to support its industrial goals of boosting science and technology.

Mr. Clement said the government will be flexible: “Basically it is for deferred maintenance that is connected to research and development. So that can be very broadly determined and identified by the institution and by the province.”

Federal officials have also quietly assured the provinces that their key criterion is to get the projects started.

“The permissiveness has increased significantly over the past few days,” said a university source.

John Milloy, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities said it is too early to say if the federal plan can be co-ordinated with the province’s.

Ontario has been working for months on a long-term plan for investment in campus capital projects. Universities last fall submitted proposals for building projects and a consultant was hired to review them and visit sites. A decision is expected this spring on which proposals will be funded.

“Obviously we are hoping the federal investments will complement the work we are doing,” Mr. Milloy said. “I certainly made the federal government aware of the work that has been done.”

Ontario university leaders are concerned that the federal program will skew long-term capital plans. But Paul Genest, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said there is enough flexibility in rules for qualifying projects to enable schools to put forward their top priorities.

“This is something our members are going to be able to work with,” he said.

Universities are to submit requests for the first round of projects by the end of this month. Ottawa will fund up to half of the eligible costs, with the balance to come from the provinces.

Mr. Clement said he wants to get the program going quickly.

“We really are looking for things that are shovel-ready.”

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