Higher Education Strategy Associates

January 14

Alternatives, Please

Recently, there have been several articles about how university prioritization plans are divisive, or that they are morale-suckers, or that the faculty “don’t support them”.  The most recent case comes out of Wilfrid Laurier.  But why all the fuss? After all, setting priorities happens all the time; it’s part of the business of running an institution.  From one year to the next, investments may be increased in certain areas, there may be cutback in others, or wholly new programs may be introduced.  Nothing unusual there.

Perhaps it’s about context.  Although program prioritization is essentially about resource allocation and organizational strategy, and not necessarily about short-term cuts, it has certainly been used for this purpose at many institutions in Canada.  And to the extent that the perception is “prioritization = cuts”, it’s not exactly an enormous surprise that faculty oppose it.  Turkeys, by and large, don’t vote for Thanksgiving.

But the question is not whether prioritization is bad because it sometimes leads to/accompanies cuts.  The fact is, in Canada, institutional income (i.e. tuition and government grants) is rising more slowly than faculty salary mass, and so cuts are inevitable.  The real question is: are there other methods or processes for dealing with budget compression that faculties would support?

There really aren’t that many ways you can deal with cuts in post-secondary institutions.  One route is simply to share the pain, and cut all units by the same amount.  This was a widely-used tactic in the 1990s, and many people have very negative views about its effects.  There is a perception – at some universities at least – that good units, which should have received investment, were sacrificed to help units that actually weren’t very good.  The desire for a more surgical approach is why some – and not just those in administration – have applauded the prioritization process.

Prioritization is challenging because it attempts to quantify both program quality and relevance.  Ah, but how do you define quality and relevance, ask the skeptics?  Fair point – it’s tricky – but most processes I’ve seen have involved at least some community consultation in developing the relevant indicators with which institutions make decisions.  Provided everyone participates in good faith, it’s a respectable way to proceed – and more to the point, it’s a transparent way to proceed because the evidence on which decisions are made is public (or at least public within the university community – the actual data tends to remain behind a firewall).  Done well, institutions should find themselves stronger, not weaker, for having some priorities.

Now, it’s possible that other strategies exist: ones that involve neither prioritization nor across-the-board cuts (defenders of responsibility-centred budgeting will usually suggest that their methods are pretty useful in this respect).  But what’s notable about the attack on prioritization from groups like the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) is that it is not accompanied by any other suggestions about how to proceed.  All of this suggests that the fuss is more about the cuts – which are inevitable – than about the method for dealing with them.

This opposition is leading OCUFA to support some very weird things.  Take for instance the excitement with which they point to a piece co-authored by Trent President Leo Groarke, which suggests that prioritization is unnecessary because good administrators don’t need to collect a lot of data to know which parts of the institution aren’t preforming so well.  But Groarke’s argument isn’t one against cutting when and where necessary; it’s an argument that competent administrators should have the freedom to cut without going through the time-consuming rigamarole of collecting and presenting data.

But is that really what people want?  A process that gives administration more discretion, and where the information on which decisions are based is not transparent?

I’d guess the answer is no.  But until someone makes a positive case for a different process by which priorities can be set, it’s hard to be sure.

January 13

Packaging Student Aid

One of the things about student aid that makes it such great fun as a policy area is that it’s as much about framing as it is about actual policy.  For instance, which of the following two policies would you like to have?

a)      A policy where students are asked to bear a huge amount of debt – over $100,000 in some cases for an undergraduate degree – over 25 years, and where three-quarters of students will never repay their loans in full; or:

b)      A policy where graduates are asked to pay a 9% surtax for 25 years, up to a maximum of about $100,000, but much less (possibly even $0) if their earnings are low.

If you’re a regular reader of the Guardian, you’ll probably recognize the first policy as being the one implemented by the Cameron government in 2012, to cover fees in English universities.  That’s the one the progressive types are always pointing at and shouting: “Look!  Students are being horribly indebted AND the government is losing lots of money through the program!  Quelle fiasco!”

But here’s the thing: that second program is also the English loan scheme.  As I’ve explained before, for the three-quarters or so of graduates not expected to pay off their loans in full, the scheme is simply a graduate tax.  It’s not explained that way, but that’s what it is.  It’s a packaging issue.

There’s something similar going on in student aid policy in the United States; namely, the interest in something called “Income Share Agreements”.  It’s been kicking around for awhile (the American Enterprise Institute wrote about it a year ago), but is getting more of a hearing these days because Florida Senator, and potential Presidential candidate, Marco Rubio is now backing it.  It’s basically a Human Capital Contract – someone gives you money today, and you agree to give them a set portion of your income for a set number of years.

If that sounds like a Graduate Tax, that’s because it’s exactly how a graduate tax works – the difference in this case simply being that you’re not giving that money to government, but rather to an individual who has chosen to “invest” in you.  The beneficiary is different, but the flow of funds is precisely the same.  But that difference is enough to get the idea some love from a Tea Party favourite.

And that is to say nothing of our experience in Canada where the CFS, which absolutely hates income-contingent loans, and has done so for years, applauded the introduction of the Repayment Assistance Program (RAP) – which basically makes the Canada Student Loans Program fully income-contingent – because the government simply chose not to call the program “income contingent”.

This all goes to show: in student aid, few people actually look at substance.  The real debate is about the packaging.

January 12

That Obama Free Community College Proposal

I was going to start on a series about growth in non-academic staff numbers today, but the news out of Washington late last week was too spectacular, so I’m bumping it.  Did Obama really say he wanted to make community college free?

Well, yes he did.  But he might not have meant it the way we all heard it.  And whatever happens, it’s unlikely to occur any time soon.

Let’s start with what he actually said (White House fact sheet, here).  He said he would make tuition free for “responsible students” (read: on course to graduate on-time, with a 2.5 GPA) attending community colleges and taking courses towards a 4-year degree, or an occupational training course in an “in-demand” field.  But there were some catches.  Only institutions that adopt “promising and evidence-based” programs to improve graduation rates will qualify.  States also have to agree to participate, kick-in 25% (or thereabouts) of the funding without cutting any other higher education programs, plus adopt a new outcome-based formula-funding system that funds completions rather than enrolments.  It’s not clear how many states will agree to this (nor, indeed, is there much likelihood that a republican congress would agree to those kind of state spending mandates).

There are obviously a whole bunch of questions that weren’t answered in the initial announcement.  The main one was whether Obama meant “free”, or if he actually meant “government would cover the cost”.  That makes a big difference; Pell grants already cover the cost of tuition for nearly half of all community college students.  If that were the standard, it would imply that all of the new money would be going to students currently considered wealthy enough not to need grants.  That would make the new program very similar in distributional consequences to the notionally universal $1,500 refundable tax credit that Bill Clinton introduced in his second term, but which in fact was only available to those receiving less than $1,500 in Pell.

Another question, not raised much in the US, is: if the initiative is in fact successful at increasing the number of students at 2-year institutions (some of whom, to be fair, could simply be people switching from 4-year to 2-year), where are they all going to study?  In many states – California, for example – the systems are already at breaking point.  Who funds the growth required to make this system successful?

A lot of people seem to think that the President really did mean “free tuition” (i.e. no displacement of Pell grants, which are income-based), based on a comment made last week by his spokesman.  But on the other hand, the spokesman also said the program had been costed at $60/billion over ten years, or $6 billion per year, or about $666 per community college student.  Given that average tuition is about $3,800, it’s hard to see how this plan makes sense unless the administration: a) doesn’t expect most states to participate; b) doesn’t think many students will qualify; and, c) doesn’t in fact mean free tuition, but rather just “cover the cost”.  Or maybe the administration threw together a bunch of nonsense numbers that don’t matter.  Regardless, the likelihood of this becoming policy anytime soon is pretty low; it’s value is mainly rhetorical and as a marker for future policy initiatives by future Presidents.

As I said a last year, free tuition in community colleges makes a fair bit of sense.  The main rationale for fees is that: a) there are substantial private benefits, and, b) the clientele is mainly better-off and don’t need all the subsidies.  But those don’t hold true in community colleges the way they do in universities.   So while there might be some better ways to use that amount of money, this is still a generally worthwhile and positive initiative.  Would that a Canadian government could be so bold.

January 09

The Canada Apprentice Loan: Adventures in Federalism

As I noted a few months back when writing about the 50th anniversary of the Canada Student Loans Program, CSLP was at the heart of one of the federation’s key moments in fiscal federalism.  In 1964, Lester Pearson was running into opposition in Quebec on two of his major policy initiatives: the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Student Loans Program.  A deal on both was eventually struck: any province could “opt-out” of a federal program and receive a compensating “alternative payment”, so long as they ran a program that provided citizens with essentially the same benefits.  The actual clause in the Canada Student Loans Act (stripped of some confusing jargon) reads as follows:

16. (1) Where the government of a province has, at least twelve months before the commencement of a loan year, informed the Minister in writing that a provincial student loan plan will be in operation in that province in that loan year and that [the province does not wish to participate in the CSLP], the Minister shall pay to the province… an alternative amount calculated as provided in this section.

Through to the early 90s, this was the standard way to create new programs in Canada.  If a province wanted out, you simply lopped-off a portion of the program’s budget and handed it to them.  It was only ever Quebec that wanted to do this, but in theory it was available to every province.

Now, along comes the Canada Apprentice Loans, announced in last year’s budget.  They have their own legislation, the Apprentice Loans Act, which became law last year via the budget omnibus legislation. This is a point worth underlining – it means that these loans are administered on a different legal basis than Canada Student Loans.  And what’s immediately apparent when you read the legislation is that not only has the concept of opting-out gone out the window, but it’s turned around, smashed the glass, and done a serious crowbar-job on the frame, too.

Here’s the new wording:

7. The Minister may pay a province the amount that is determined in accordance with the regulations if:

(a) the Minister determines that apprentices registered with the province are unable to enter into agreements for apprentice loans under section 4;

(b) the province has in place a program providing for financial assistance to apprentices; and

(c) the Minister considers that the purpose of the program is substantially similar to the purpose of this Act.

Put simply, provinces do not have the right to opt-out under the new Act.  The minister can choose to setup a deal and give compensation to a province if she/he chooses (which of course was immediately done with Quebec), but it’s a gift of the Minister.  If Alberta set up its own program and asked for treatment similar to Quebec, the Minister would be legally within his rights to tell them to take a long walk off a short pier.

The fact that this passed essentially unnoticed tells you something about the state of our federation.  Even ten years ago, this wording would have made Quebec go ballistic, and probably Alberta as well.  Now: nothing.  And so the government led by the man who drafted the Alberta firewall letter enacts the most centralist piece of new legislation in fifty years.

Kind of fascinating.

January 08

Canada Apprentice Loans: Adventures in Government

I know it’s exceptionally nerdy, but I highly recommend the experience of reading a new law’s regulatory impact statement, for no other reason than to get a taste of the sheer absurdity of government these days.

Take the regulations on the new Apprentice Loan Act. The executive summary on the cost-benefit of the program (scroll down a bit) reads as follows:

The Canada Apprentice Loan (CAL) will cost the Government of Canada (GoC) $74 million over 10 years, from 2014–15 to 2023–24. Benefits include income gains for additional apprentice completers as a result of the CAL. If a 10 percentage point increase in the completion rate due to the CAL were assumed, this would yield income gains of $185 million over 10 years, and net benefits to Canadians of $111 million.

The key word in that sentence is “assumed”. Or, in other words: they plucked some numbers out of the air to make the program look plausible.

To be fair to the folks who wrote this, there’s no good data available as to the likely impact apprentice loans might have on completion. There would be if the government had, at any time in the past six years, evaluated the effect of the Apprenticeship Incentive or Completion Grants, or the Tradesperson’s Tool Deduction. But the government hasn’t done any of this, so “assuming” numbers may have been the only way to go.

Another highly amusing aspect of the regulatory statement is the rationale for the program’s borrowing limit of $4,000/period of technical training. Supposedly, it’s equivalent to an apprentice’s lost earnings during a technical training period, but no source for the figure is given.

In all the largest occupational categories, the usual technical training period is 8 weeks. At a fairly generous estimate of $17/hr and 40 hours per week, the implied loss in gross earnings is about $5,440, with a net earnings loss of between $4,000 and $4,500, depending on what province you’re in. So the estimate is probably right, right?

Wrong. That math only works if you assume the apprentice does not receive EI during technical training. Once EI is factored in, apprentices would need to be making $25/hour in order to be losing $4,000 in wages per technical training period. Let me assure you: apprentices are not making $25/hour.

How could anyone make such errors, you ask? Simple: they aren’t errors. Nobody actually believes these numbers. They’re just made-up after the fact to provide cover for a decision that was made with an eye toward placating constituencies (read: construction companies) rather than addressing a real problem. It’s what happens when policy is made on the fly, and the public service isn’t asked for input until after budget night.

Some of you may read this and think: “Aha! Tory perfidy!” But resist that impulse if you can. Harper’s government is hardly the only one that does this kind of thing: the Ontario Liberals’ 30% Tuition Grant is a far more egregious example of the same process, and a more expensive one too. The OTG costs hundreds of millions of dollars per year, where the Apprentice Loans are projected to cost just $7 million/year (yes, yes, the budget said it would cost $25 million/year – now they’ve decided it will be less).

The real problem is that when Canadian governments of any stripe want to claim they’re “doing something” about education, they simply start writing cheques to learners (or their parents) and Hey, Presto! Problem solved! But the only “problem” this solves is the perception that governments aren’t doing anything about education.  Improving education – actually making a difference in terms of completion rates, or graduate quality, or what have you – that takes work. That takes thought. That requires politicians to concentrate for more than a couple of hours.

Most of all, it requires investments in institutions. And increasingly, governments seem reluctant to make those investments.

January 07

Student Aid in Canada: Tectonic Shifts Ahead

The details of the Canada Apprentice Loan, announced in last year’s federal budget, are now public. It’s a straight $4000 that any apprentice can get, once per technical training period for up to five technical training periods for a total of $20,000 per apprentice. And as we predicted in our 2014 Budget Commentary, the loan is in fact going to be completely means-test free. An apprentice could be making $18/hour all year, plus about $1800/month on EI for the duration of the training period – that is, about $35,000 per year – and the government is still prepared to hand you a $20,000 loan, interest free for the duration of the apprenticeship, repayable on the same basis as an ordinary student loan. Because skilled trades.

At this point you’re probably asking yourself: why give loans to apprentices earning $35,000/year but deny them to community college students earning $15,000/year (which is more or less where loan eligibility runs out) via part-time jobs? If a learner’s income or current standard of living is no longer a barrier to receiving financial assistance, why not make student aid universal, the way it is in Australia or the UK or Sweden? Why not just open student loans up to anyone?

Student leaders will hesitate before taking up the cudgels on this one, since many are pretty heavily invested in the “loans = Satan” narrative. But on the other hand, eliminating the means-test will certainly benefit at least some of their members. So it seems likely that at some point this will become one of their demands.

Given that it’s an election year, this might come about fairly quickly. Easier loan terms could be on any party’s manifesto. My personal bet is the Liberals will pick this one up first because they seem to find it so hard to resist gimmicky education platforms that benefit the upper middle-class, but there’s no ideological bar for any party to take up this idea. And precisely because you could see almost any party picking up this idea, it’s a dead certainty that at some point one of them will. It’s inevitable. And once that happens, big changes will be afoot.

The problem is that the costs associated with a move like this could be high. Alberta moved to eliminate parental contributions a couple of years ago and their loan portfolio has increased by something on the order of 50%. That’s OK in an essentially loans-only system like Alberta’s, but try that in a system with more substantial grant or remission amounts and money starts going out the door pretty fast. Most provinces wouldn’t be able to match that kind of generosity, and we could see student loans become yet more complicated with different federal and provincial need assessment mechanisms in each province. Even the feds might find it too rich eventually, and the worry would be that other programs for the needy would be cut in order to maintain this upper middle-class benefit.

There is a way to square this circle, however. And that is to apply a very simple principle: if a loan is universal, it should not come with interest subsidies. Subsidized loans to poorer students? No problem. But subsidized loans to all comers? That way madness lies.

If that simple principle is adopted, we could still preserve a decent system: means-tested subsidized loans for those who need them, and universal non-subsidized loans for those who want (but probably don’t need) them. That way, we would solve the problem of how to help the occasional student whose parents have high income (and hence disqualify a student from receiving student loans) but who won’t contribute to their kids’ education.

It’s probably not the best way to spend new aid dollars – you would probably get more bang for your buck spending that money on aid to First Nations students, for instance. But it’s also not a terrible idea, provided that the loans are unsubsidized.

January 06

Adult Discussions About Research Policy

Over the winter break, the Toronto Star published an editorial on research funding that deserves to be taken out to the woodshed and clobbered.

The editorial comes in two parts. The first is a reflection on whether or not the Harper government is a “caveman” or just “incompetent” when it comes to science. I suppose it’s progress that the Star gives two options, but frankly the Harper record on science isn’t hard to decode:

  1. The Conservatives like “Big Science” and have funded it reasonably well.
  2. They’re not crazy about pure inquiry-driven stuff the granting councils have traditionally done and have kept growth under inflation as a result (which isn’t great but is better than what has happened to some other areas of government funding).
  3. They really hate government regulatory science especially when it comes to the environment and have approached it the way the Visigoths approached Rome (axes out, with an intention to cause damage).
  4. By and large they’d prefer if scientists and business would work more closely together; after all, what’s state investment in research and development for if not to increase economic growth?

But that’s not the part of the article that needs a smack upside the head. Rather, it’s these statements:

Again and again, the Conservatives have diverted resources from basic research – science for no immediate purpose other than knowledge-gathering – to private-public partnerships aimed at immediate commercial gain.


…by abandoning basic research – science that no business would pay for – the government is scorching the very earth from which innovation grows.

OK, first of all: the idea that there is a sharp dividing line between “basic” and “applied” research is pure hornswoggle. They aren’t polar opposites; lots of research (including pretty much everything in medicine and engineering) is arguably both. Outside of astronomy/cosmology, very little modern science is for no purpose other than knowledge gathering. There is almost always some thought of use or purpose. Go read Pasteur’s Quadrant.

Second, while the government is certainly making much of its new money conditional on business participation, the government hasn’t “abandoned” basic research. The billions going into the granting councils are still there.

Third, the idea that innovation and economic growth are driven solely or even mainly by domestic basic research expenditures  is simply a fantasy. A number of economists have shown a connection between economic growth and national levels of research and development; no one (so far as I know) has ever proven it about basic research alone.

There’s a good reason for that: while basic research is the wellspring of innovation (and it’s important that someone does basic research), in open economies it’s not in the least clear that every country has to engage in it to the same degree. The Asian tigers, for instance, emphasized “development” for decades before they started putting money into what we would consider serious basic research facilities. And nearly all the technology Canadian industry relies on is American, and would be so even if we tripled our research budgets.

We know almost nothing about the “optimal” mix of R&D, but it stands to reason that the mix is going to be different in different industries based on how close to the technological frontier each industry is in a given country. The idea that there is a single optimal mix across all times and places is simply untenable.

Cartoonishly simple arguments like the Star’s, which imply that any shift away from “basic” research is inherently wrong, aren’t just a waste of time; the “basic = good, applied = bad” line of argument actively infantilizes the Canadian policy debate. It’s long past time this policy discussion grew up.

January 05

Canadian College Athletics

Morning, all. Good holidays?

I spent a part of my break in Venice, California (when not writing about higher education, I am in fact The Dude). What hits you full in the face when in the US at this time of year is the ubiquity of college football. I could regale you with tales of US college athletics, but others do it far better than I could: I recommend Charles Clotfelter’s Big-time Sports at American Universities, or if you’re looking for something shorter, this NYT article from last week is not bad.

What’s amazing to me is not simply the size of the college sports enterprise, but also the degree of regulation that goes along with it. Much of this regulation is of course devoted to trying to keep college athletes from claiming any part of the income they are generating for schools and the NCAA through their athletic prowess (Taylor Branch’s classic 2011 article in the Atlantic is pretty good on this). The complexity of the rules designed to stop outsiders (agents, boosters, memorabilia collectors, anyone really) from providing them with “unearned remuneration” can seem quite hilarious to Canadians – our college football teams are completely unregulated in this regard, which is why Laval’s football team is essentially paid for by a furniture company magnate.

A fair bit of the rulebook comes in the name of gender equality. For decades now, a part of the Higher Education Act known as Title IX has required institutions to offer equitable opportunities to play sports and that they offer scholarship opportunities to men and women equal to their participation. That doesn’t mean equal participation and scholarships, exactly: Men are 57% of all registered NCAA athletes, and receive 54% of the $2.1 billion in athletic scholarships on offer (recall that men only make up 45% or so of undergraduates). The gap has been closed over the years (see this excellent piece from the Women’s Sports Foundation) largely by encouraging growth in women’s sports rather than, as sometimes claimed, reducing the spots available to men.

The question (for me at least) then becomes: how well is Canada faring on the same metrics?

In terms of athletic opportunities (i.e. spots on varsity teams), the total count is 11,601, up about 15% since 2001-2. Men represent 54% of all the athletes today, the same proportion as a decade earlier (despite men only representing about 44% of the undergraduate class).

Scholarships have grown much faster than athletic opportunities. In fact, athletic scholarships have probably grown faster than any other component of university spending in Canada over the past decade. In 2000-01, Canadian universities gave out $2.4 million in scholarships to 2060 students (avg = $1165 per scholarship), of which 65% went to men. In 2012-13, Canadian universities gave out $14.6 million in scholarships to 5070 students (avg = $2880 per scholarship) of which 57% goes to men.

There’s some good and some bad here. We’re making (slow) progress towards gender equality in sports, and the gender balance in athletes and scholarships in Canada is similar to that in the US. If you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that we in Canada have achieved this without the need for government regulation; if you’re a pessimist, you can ask why we aren’t further ahead given that our athletics programs aren’t burdened with the Big-Time Football albatross.

But most importantly – why have our university athletic budgets gone up fivefold in real dollars over the past decade? Does this make any kind of sense? Who’s minding the store here, exactly?

December 12

End of Term

Hi all.  Today’s blog will be the last for 2014.  Normal service will resume on Monday January 5th.

End of term is always a time for stick-taking.  And so I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what’s happened in 2014.

First, the positive stuff.  I think we should note an enormous and fairly positive shift in the tone of the discussion regarding education and the labour market.  The fact that I was not able to offer a “worst back-to-school” article this year is in large measure a reflection of the decline in people talking absolute crap.

In 2013, it was all sociologists vs. welders, why weren’t universities producing the “right” kind of graduate, and why couldn’t we all be more like Germany?  British Columbia, unfortunately, is still largely in the grip of this nonsense, but in the rest of the country this kind of talk has diminished substantially.

Jason Kenney himself seems to have understood that while Germany’s interesting, you can’t get there from here; moreover, the main reason you can’t get there from here isn’t because of recalcitrant institutions, it’s because Canadian employers are genuinely retrograde when it comes to training.  That’s progress.

Second, I’m starting to see real evidence that institutions are getting serious about reining-in costs.  More institutions, for instance, are introducing Responsibility-Centred Budgeting, which will gradually align incentives within the university towards fiscal balance.  And at Windsor, we’ve seen the first example of a university really taking a hard line with extravagant salary demands.  So there is some hope.

But there’s still more to be done.  I don’t see much sign yet that most institutions are even trying come to grips with the Arts problem(s); on the contrary, in many places the strategy seems to consist of heroically ignoring the problem.  That’s bad.  So, too, is the continued impoverished state of our discussion on costs & affordability, and their relationship with access. This discourse remains in the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing stage largely because “progressive” groups like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the usual suspects in the student movement insist on pretending subsidies either don’t exist or have no effect.

We’re doing well recruiting international students, but I don’t think we’re doing all that well by them once they’re here.  I’m convinced one institution somewhere is going to sleepwalk into some kind of reputation-shredding catastrophe soon for precisely that reason.  And finally, there is still disappointingly few signs of a sustained, useful dialogue between higher education and employers.

Closer to home at HESA Towers, we’ve had an excellent year, and I’d like to thank my whole team here who have all worked incredibly hard.  My particular thanks go to Jacqueline Lambert, who does an awful lot of the data work for this blog (what, you thought I did all the crunching myself?).  It’s a privilege to work with a team this good, just as it’s a pleasure to be writing about a sector filled with so many hardworking, dedicated people.

But I’ll leave the last word to you, readers.  How has the blog been this past year?  Better than before? Worse?  Anything I haven’t been writing about, but should?  Anything I have been writing about, but shouldn’t?  Please let me know in the comments below, or email me directly.

Happy holidays.  Rest well, and come back strong in January.  Na’zhdravie!

December 11

Scholarships, Proximity Talks, and the PQ’s Lost Mojo

In the late 90s, Canada was still seemingly on the edge of a break-up.  But exactly 15 years ago at the Hotel Des Gouverneurs in Quebec City, that started to change, thanks to a scholarship program.

Recall: in the summer of 1997, the Chretien government gave in to a long-standing demand of the Government of Quebec, and the province’s chattering classes, and handed-over powers for labour market training programs.  The silence from said chattering classes was deafening.  Partly in retaliation, Chretien decided he’d poke Quebec in the eye by creating a Millennium Scholarship Foundation to hand out scholarships to all Canadians, including Quebecers (it was created as a private foundation precisely in order to do an end-run around Quebec’s opt-out from the Canada Student Loans Program).

The PQ, predictably, went mental.  Even the provincial Liberals – who back then felt a need to regularly buff their nationalist credentials – joined in, sponsoring a motion in the National Assembly that said Quebec would not work with the Foundation unless: a) Quebec got a proportional share of whatever money was on offer; b) Quebec would get to choose who got the recipients; and, c) there should be no duplication with provincial aid programs.  The PQ agreed because it figured these were terms the Foundation could not meet, and so the motion passed unanimously.  The PQ position was strengthened in the fall of 1998 when it won re-election, in part on a campaign against federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction. Advantage Quebec, right?

What the PQ didn’t reckon on was Norman Riddell, the Foundation’s Executive Director.  He went around the country striking deals with every other province, which more or less met Quebec’s criteria.  He gave every province a share of Foundation money equal to its share of population, he let them “choose” students by saying he’d give money to students with the highest need, but accept provincial decisions about how to define need.  And there’d be no duplication, because he’d pay the provinces a small fee to run the whole thing for him anyway.  Advantage, Foundation.

This annoyed the PQ, because they’d been counting on the feds being unreasonable in order to sustain their Ottawa-is-Satan narrative.  They stalled, claiming it was beneath their dignity to negotiate with a “mere” Foundation, and insisted all negotiations be with Ottawa.  This threw sand in the wheels because Ottawa’s intergovernmental affairs machinery is ponderous to the point of parody.  By December ’99, just a month before money would start to flow in the other nine provinces, there was still no deal.

At which point, la Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) came to the rescue.  It had dawned on students that there was: a) money on the table that their members would miss out on, and b) a deal to be made if the government of Quebec weren’t so obstinate.  The students forced Quebec back to the table.  Of course, Quebec still wouldn’t talk directly to the Foundation.  Instead, the feds had to act as intermediaries, shuttling back and forth between two hotel rooms to strike a deal, just like Northern Irish “proximity talks”.  It was deeply ludicrous, but a deal was eventually done, and Quebec students got their money like everyone else.

A few months later, Bouchard resigned as Quebec premier.  It was mostly because his party rank-and-file had become an enormous pain in the ass, but in his resignation speech Bouchard cited his failure to make Quebecers hate the Foundation as one of the reasons he felt it was time to move on.  Without Bouchard, the sovereignty movement caught a terminal case of lost mojo, and now stands weaker than at any time since the 1960s.

There’s no real point to this story, other than that those proximity talks (in which I participated) happened almost exactly 15 years ago to the day. And that, where student aid policy is concerned, Canada is – and always has been – a pretty goofy place.

Page 14 of 84« First...1213141516...203040...Last »