Friday, September 08, 2006

New Brunswick Election - Post-secondary education policy

A week ago, I wrote to the campaign offices of the three candidates running in the New Brunswick provincial election in my riding of Tantramar. I was concerned that there was little information about the various parties' positions on post-secondary education, and so sent each of them a set of seven questions, as follows:

1) What are your, and your party's, main priorities in the sector of post-secondary education?

2) Where does your party stand with regards to federal involvement in post-secondary education? The federal government appears to be reconsidering the extent of its involvement in this sector. Does your party have a position on this issue?

3) Tuition levels at New Brunswick universities, and certainly at Mount Allison University in your riding, are among the highest in Canada (indeed, my students tell me that it is _the_ highest in the country). How do you and your party intend to make access to post-secondary education affordable?

4) What is your party's plan for reinvesting in NB universities so that they can remain competitive and attract top faculty and students from across Canada and around the world?

5) How much is your party planning to invest in student loans, student bursaries or scholarships?

6) How do you think the relationship between education and economic development plays out? Where does post-secondary education fit in your party's economic development plans?

7) Is there anything else that you would want an undecided voter to know about your positions on post-secondary education?

As I write this, I have only received a response from the NDP, which I followed up with a phone call to the candidate to clarify a few details. I have received no response from the Liberal or the Conservative candidate. But, their respective campaign literature and party platforms have since been released.

What follows is my best interpretation of where the parties stand on the issue of post-secondary education. This is probably the longest post that I've put up here to date, but I think this topic warrants the attention.

NDP - Virgil Hammock

Hammock, like the two previous provincial NDP nominees in this riding, is a Mount Allison professor (emeritus, in his case). I got responses both from Hammock himself and his official agent, former candidate Berkeley Fleming.

Priorities: The top priority for Hammock is a reworking of how students pay for their post-secondary education. He is very concerned at how tuition has been rising, and that responsibility for student loans has been off-loaded onto private banks. He would like to see more attention paid to expanding student bursaries. The NDP has not released a major plank on post-secondary education, although Hammock appears to be committed to stabilizing core funding for the universities, which are now having to rely very heavily on student tuition for their funding.

Federal Involvement: The NDP opposes any federal withdrawal from involvement in post-secondary education, whether in terms of student support or research support.

Accessibility: The NDP position on tuition increases recognizes that tuition fees now account for over 50% of the revenue for universities in the Maritimes, and argues that tuition levels would be stabilized or at least tuition increases minimized if a more generous government granting formula were introduced. Doing this would likely require retreating from the current orthodoxy concerning the need to cut taxes.

Reinvestment: The NDP generally supports the idea of more substantial government grants to post-secondary institutions like Mount Allison to recruit new, highly-trained personnel, and allow them to maintain and enhance the teaching and research that they are currently able to provide under rather strained circumstances. The party has not, however, released a specific plan for how much money it would devote to this.

Education and Economic Development: The NDP sees these issues as being bound up together, and the party argues that post-secondary education's critical significance for economic development alone justifies significantly more financial support from government to universities and community colleges. This is nowhere more important than in the Francophone areas of the province, which is one reason why the Universite de Moncton warrants special consideration in government grants.

Liberal - John Higham

On John Higham's personal campaign page, I was only able to find one mention of a campaign position on post-secondary education:

- We need to take advantage of Mount Allison University to help improve lifelong learning.

This is somewhat surprising for a man who used to work in the Rural and Small Town Programme at Mount Allison. A bit of poring over the Liberal "Charter for Change" and Press Releases yielded the following additional information:

- A $2000 grant for every first-year university student.
- Creation of the NB Hopes scholarship program that will cover a portion of continuing students’ tuition based financial need. This will provide 1000 scholarships of $2500 each year.
- A tax rebate for students who complete post-secondary education and choose to stay in, or return to, New Brunswick.
- The removal of the assessment of parental and spousal income from student loans.
- The creation of a Commission on Post-Secondary Education that will examine the higher education needs of New Brunswickers.
- Inviting university representatives to the Standing Committee on Education to outline their plans, priorities and financial needs to the Legislature on an annual basis.
- Working with the federal government to establish a dedicated transfer for funding post-secondary education that is adequate, stable and predictable.

There is nothing that I could see in the Liberal platform about providing additional core funding to the universities of New Brunswick. The main priority seems to be easing the tuition burden for New Brunswick students, and encouraging students to stay in the province for their studies, or return here afterwards. There is little here to suggest that attracting out-of-province students to come here for university, or stay afterwards is a priority. I recognize that this is not a sexy election platform plank, but it is a part of what enriches university programs.

Progressive Conservative - Mike Olscamp

Bernard Lord's government seems to largely be running on its record, and promising more of the same. I was able to gather some information on new promises from the PC webpage of Press Releases, Olscamp's campaign literature, and statements made at the candidates debate:

- Over the next 5 years, $8.6 million will be invested in Mount Allison University, a key player in the local economy
- The New Brunswick Tuition Rebate Program will allow students who stay in New Brunswick to live and work to recover up to $10,000 in tuition costs.
- The government created the New Brunswick Opportunities Fund to create scholarships and bursaries for students in financial need.

To their credit, the Conservatives are the only party to indicate a specific financial contribution to Mount Allison. However, the party in power also has the onus of bearing some responsibility for the current state of affairs. And right now, that isn't pretty, with our library budget operating at less than bare-bones capacity. (Indeed, I found out today that the one of the recent rounds of library cuts in the spring included the daily newspaper subscription to the Saint John Telegraph-Journal (we still get the microfilms as they come out) and the online subscriptions to a number of New Brunswick papers (because of subscription fee hikes), which will make it somewhat more difficult to teach media analysis to my students.) It's nice to see more money being promised, but part of the problem is that adequate funding wasn't forthcoming in the past.

So there you have it - the candidate and party platforms on post-secondary education, such as I could find them out for you. I'm disappointed at the lack of attention to core funding for universities. I also think that the student grant/bursary programs being proposed by the various parties, while an important step, don't go nearly far enough. New Brunswick needs to be attracting students from across the country to its universities, and then providing opportunities to encourage them to stay, and invest in the economy. International students and immigrants should also be more central to a development agenda.

In the short term, some of the parties' planks will likely resonate with the immediate self-interest of voters. Unfortunately, I don't think they go far enough in terms of long-term planning.

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At 1:24 am, Blogger Harrap said...

Great blog!

Impressive research - it's good to have diligent voters out there to ask the candidates about the issues.


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