by James Compton
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is halfway through its term. The honeymoon period is over, and — as with all governments hitting the mid-term of their first mandate — they are no doubt starting to turn their attention towards the next election cycle in 2019. Consequently, their midterm budget will prove to be a key political document in marking the government’s record and pointing towards future goals and priorities. What might those priorities be for post-secondary education?
All governments want to curry favour with voters. Nothing newsworthy here, but on that point, I have some good news for the Prime Minister — the public wants to support post-secondary education. CAUT commissioned a poll on the Canadian public’s attitudes on post-secondary education last fall, and the results were encouraging. The polling firm Environics conducted the survey in November 2017, as part of multi-year tracking of public opinion. One key finding was that close to “half of Canadians, up from one quarter in 2015, think the government is on the right track when it comes to supporting scientists and researchers.” This indicates public support for the Liberal’s turn away from the previous Conservative government’s austerity policies on research funding. The Liberal’s 2016–2017 budget provided a much-needed boost of $76 million to Canada’s granting councils. Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan has referred to this move as a “down payment,” and if this polling is correct, the public would like to see the next instalment. As was the case in 2015, the poll found that almost all respondents — over 90 per cent — strongly/ somewhat agree the federal government should increase research funding. This is encouraging.
Support for the granting councils was significantly eroded for close to a decade under the Conservatives, whose policies sought to steer money away from basic science and towards short-term industry and business research partnerships. This funding shortfall was documented in a report by the Fundamental Science Review Panel appointed by Minister Duncan. The panel painted a bleak picture, estimating that between 2007–2008 and 2015–2016, “the real resources available per active researcher to do investigator-led research declined by about 35 per cent.”
Panel chair David Naylor has since lobbied to rally support around the report’s “single most important recommendation” — that the federal government increase investment in independent investigator-led research with an immediate injection of $1.3 billion to granting council base funding over four years.
But we shouldn’t stop there. It’s true that direct funding for post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility, but the financial shortfalls that provincial governments are juggling are partly the result of reductions in cash transfers from the federal government to the provinces that began in the 1990s. CAUT estimates that the current federal cash transfers for post-secondary education are approximately $400 million short of matching 1992–1993 funding levels when adjusted for inflation and population growth. Additionally, the three per cent escalator within the Canada Social Transfer does not adequately reflect rising costs and increased demand for post-secondary education — something, our polling indicates, Canadians want to support. Nine in 10 respondents agreed that no one should be denied a college education because they can’t afford it.
Government underfunding has also contributed to the rise in poorly paid, precariously employed contract academic staff. Survey estimates indicate that roughly a third of university professors are now on a temporary or part-time contract. This is no way to support Canada’s scientific and scholarly research community.
Once again, we find that Canadians are onside. Eight in 10 poll respondents agreed with the statement that the loss of full-time teaching jobs and the growing use of short-term teaching contracts are hurting the quality of education in our colleges and universities. And 80 per cent of respondents agreed that students borrow too much for their education.
So, Prime Minister, if you’re looking for a way to give the people what they want, consider boosting funding for post-secondary education. It’s likely to be a popular move.