Budget 2017 was billed as a skills and innovation budget, two things the government insists are necessary to build a strong middle class. Post-secondary education plays an important role in the government’s vision for skills and innovation. In fact, the Budget states that one of the markers of success for the commitments in Budget 2017 will be that they “encourage a culture of lifelong learning, with more accessible post-secondary education, training and employment supports for all Canadian women and men, at all stages during their life,” and that they “increase post-secondary education participation rates, particularly for Indigenous Peoples and other underrepresented groups.”

As part of this goal, the Budget made a number of commitments on post-secondary education:

  • New eligibility rules for Canada Student Grants to make them available to an additional 10,000 part-time learners, beginning in the 2018-19 academic year.
  • New eligibility rules to make Canada Student Grants available to an additional 13,000 students with dependents, beginning in the 2018-19 academic year.
  • A three-year pilot project with $287 million in funding to test options to make it easier for adult learners to return to school and qualify for Canada Student Loans and Grants.
  • $221 million in funding over five years to Mitacs in order to provide 10,000 work placements.
  • $12 million over six years to increase awareness of the Canada Learning Bond.
  • $90 million over two years to the Post-Secondary Student Support Program in support of Indigenous students.
  • $25 million over five years to the charity Indspire which provides bursaries and scholarships to Indigenous students.

Many of these commitments represent a step in the right direction and have been welcomed loudly by stakeholders in the post-secondary sector. Nevertheless, Budget 2017 reveals some worrisome trends with regard to the federal government’s engagement in the post-secondary sector.

1.  This government does not understand precarious work.

The Budget seems to be positioning the investments in post-secondary education and training as the federal government’s response to precarious work. For instance, the rationale provided for the focus on expanding grants and loans for adult and part-time learners is that “for too many adult workers, the high cost of post-secondary education, combined with the high cost of raising a family, can make it difficult to get the training they need to make better-paying, more secure jobs a reality. More can be done to assist those who are already employed, including workers who are in part-time, contract or precarious work, to return to school to upgrade their skills so that they can find and keep better jobs” (emphasis added).

This suggests that the reason a growing number of Canadians don’t have stable good-paying jobs is primarily because they have failed to invest in the right skills. But as the growing number of precarious workers on university and college campuses can attest, this is simply not the case. Precarious work is on the rise throughout our economy, including the well-educated and those in professional positions. This is because precarious work is a condition created by employers and the kinds of working conditions they offer, not the skills of the workforce.

Furthermore, for many precarious workers, part-time studies are simply not an option. Many of them lack the control over their schedules which would allow them to study and work simultaneously, whether it’s because they are on call, subject to just-in-time scheduling, or working multiple part-time jobs to survive.

So while measures to make education more affordable and accessible are always welcome, the changes to the Canada Student Grant and Canada Student Loans program don’t even begin to tackle the problem of precarious work.  

2.  This government is failing Indigenous learners.

For two decades now, higher education for Indigenous students has been woefully underfunded. Thanks to the 2% cap imposed on Aboriginal spending programs by a previous Liberal government, funding for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program has barely increased since 1997, even as the First Nations population has grown 29%. As a result, the program is now funding nearly 20% fewer students every year compared to 1997. Because of the significant underfunding there is a large backlog of Indigenous Peoples who want to attend post-secondary education but have been denied the necessary support. Currently, only 9.8% of Indigenous Peoples aged 25-64 have a university degree, compared to 26.5% of non-Indigenous people.

In response, the Liberals promised during the election to increase funding to the PSSSP by $50 million annually. Last year they failed to deliver any new money. This year, they fell short of their own commitment, promising only $45 million a year for two years. This is not good enough.

The Prime Minister himself promised to implement all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Recommendation number 11 calls on the government to provide “adequate funding to end the backlog of First Nations students seeking a post-secondary education.” It’s time for the Prime Minister to make good on his promise.

3.  This government is continuing the corporatization of higher education.

Corporatization of higher education refers to the integration of business practices and values into universities and colleges, including greater corporate control over higher education through public-private partnerships and corporate donations with strings attached. Under corporatization, decisions are made which privilege the private interests of employers and corporations, rather than the best interests of students and the academic community.

This Budget commits $221 million over five years to Mitacs, an organization which “builds partnerships between industry and educational institutions” and whose board and research council are made up entirely of university administrators and corporate CEOs. The new funding is for work placements, which can be an important element of a university or college education, but questions have to be asked when the funding is coming through an organization on which corporate CEOs make up more than half the board.

Also, contrast the funding given to the corporately-minded Mitacs and the funding given to the not-for-profit Indspire, which gives bursaries and scholarships to Indigenous students. Mitacs will receive $221 million over five years; Indspire will get only $25 million – and only if they raise an additional $3 million every year from the private sector. Where are this government’s values when it comes to post-secondary education? Clearly not with the most vulnerable, most underrepresented learners.

4.  This government is embracing a failed approach to affordability instead of doing what is really needed to expand access.

As tuition has climbed and debt loads have skyrocketed over the past twenty years, the federal government has done very little to make higher education affordable and accessible to Canadians. One of the federal government’s programs is the Registered Educational Savings Program, which allows families to save money for post-secondary education. However, this program disproportionately benefits wealthy families.

As part of this program, the government offers the Canada Learning Bond to low income families. The CLB is available whether or not a low-income family makes a contribution to an RESP. In this sense, it is “free money” for education for low income children. However, families are forced to apply every year for the CLB, and take up of the program has been very low. Of the nearly 2.3 million children who have been eligible at some point since 2004, more than 1.5 million children have received no benefit

The federal government needs to start thinking big and making real, concrete steps towards making post-secondary education affordable and accessible for all Canadians.