Students were pleased to be the centre of politicians' attention for a change,
as education was made the focal point of the latest federal budget.
"Admitting it is the first step to recovery," said David Smaller, external vice-
president of the Concordia Student Union (CSU). As he sees it, the federal
government has finally acknowledged the extraordinary level of student debt.
The federal budget introduced by Finance Minister Paul Martin on February 24 included a $2.5-billion Millennium Scholarship Fund, aimed at helping needy students stay at university. Half the university students in Canada are now in debt, many seriously. The problem is worse outside Quebec, since tuition levels here have been kept low.
But as Smaller noted, the Millennium Fund won't kick in for two years. "It
doesn't help people like myself, with a debt of $16,000. This budget only helps
[current] students with child-care expenses." He feels that instead of pointing
to Quebec’s relatively low tuition fees, politicians should be working toward
zero tuition, like most of the world's industrialized countries.
Rector Frederick Lowy was a spokesperson for his colleagues at the Montreal
universities when the budget was released, and told the media that it was
comforting to see students get some help. But he added that because education is under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government can do little to help universities directly. Massive cuts have been made to their operating budg ets by the provinces.
Finance Professor Abolhassan Jalilvand thinks that funds could trickle down to the provinces Ñ and thus to the cash-strapped university sector Ñ if the huge federal surplus actually materializes.
"They [the federal government] are amazed themselves," Jalilvand said. "They are projecting a surplus of between $10 and $15 billion over the next two years."
As Jalilvand told CJAD the day after the budget, he would have liked to see less spending and more money devoted to paying down the national debt and reducing personal taxes. He thinks the surplus occurred because flourishing corporations were paying so much in taxes.
Political Science Professor Guy Lachapelle agreed that the budget was good for
students, but in general, he saw it as "a political act, a one-day media event"
to set the federal Liberals up for the next Quebec referendum on sovereignty.
"They shouldn't intervene in education," Lachapelle said. "They should give the money to the provinces, and let them work it out with the universities."
He compared Canada with Germany's "very efficient" federal system, where
education is strictly a matter for the Lander (provinces). As for the Canadian
government, Lachapelle said, "When they have money, they try to interfere. The provinces are perfectly capable of administering their affairs."
He said the surplus was achieved by severely reducing transfer payments to the provinces and benefiting from the robust stock market. But the gap between rich and poor provinces has been increasing, he said, and transfer payments should be restored.
"People are saying, 'Give us back the money we gave you.' They want to see
services, such as improvement of the health system and repayment of the national debt. Compared to other OECD nations, it's still very high. And believe me, the dollar is not low because of the sovereignists."
More for research The federal budget earmarked more money for university research by increasing he budgets of the main research-funding agencies, NSERC, SSHRC and MRC. Thomas A. Brzustowski, president of NSERC, said in a press release that the budget increases for research are good news for all Canadians. NSERC's budget will rise from $434 million this fiscal year to $494 million on April 1, 1998. Brzustowski called the move "a strategic investment in the nation's prosperity and in the well-being of Canadians."
"The government's increased emphasis on the importance of science and technology holds out the promise that our young scientists and engineers with advanced training will find satisfying careers in their own country, and be able to contribute to the nation that invested in their education," he said.
CREPUQ, the council of rectors of Quebec universities, called the boost to research funding "long overdue." The rectors also welcomed the help for individual students through the Millennium Scholarship Fund, but reiterated the message of a recent letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien by CREPUQ’s president, McGill principal Bernard Shapiro.
The letter said that Quebec's approach to student financing is quite different
from that of other provinces, and called on the federal government to restore
former levels of transfer payments to benefit universities as a whole.
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