A few months ago, someone asked me what I wanted to see in the budget. I said i) investment in aboriginal PSE, ii) system changes for the benefit of mature students and iii) changes to loan repayment (specifically, a reduction of the maximum loan payment from 20% of disposable income to 15%). To my great pleasure, the government came through on two of those wishes. But there is still a lot of work to do yet.
Let’s start with the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which the Government of Canada gives to individual First Nations to support band members’ education costs. The Budget provides a $45 million (14%) bump to this program but also said the Government would “undertake a comprehensive and collaborative review with Indigenous partners of all current federal programs that support Indigenous students who wish to pursue post-secondary education”, which I think is code for “we’d prefer a new mechanism which is somewhat more transparent than PSSSP”.
Let’s just say I have my doubts about how easy this collaborative review will be. Indigenous peoples – young ones especially – have a lot of issues with the federal government at the moment, and it will be difficult to try to manage a focussed review of this one subject without a lot of other agenda items intruding. I’ve written on this subject before, and there certainly are ways which the funding could be arranged to be managed more efficiently. That said, some of these ways involve taking management away from band councils and giving it to some other aboriginal organization operating at a larger scale and not all bands are going to find that appealing.
Anyways, the takeaway is: if the feds are expecting a replacement to PSSSP to be in place by fall 2019, they’d better get to work yesterday.
Now, what about the new measures for mature students/adults returning to school? This was a welcome budget initiative, because the policy discussion has perhaps been focussed too heavily on traditional-aged students for the past few years. There are however, maybe two cautions I would put on the initiative and how it will roll out.
The first is the budget description of the $287M over three years for programs benefitting these students as a “pilot project’. I am fairly certain that is PMO-speak, not ESDC-speak. First of all, I’m moderately certain the law doesn’t allow pilots; second, the idea that provinces are willingly going to spend time and money re-jigging all their program systems to accommodate program changes that are inherently temporary in nature is kind of fanciful. So I suspect what’s going to happen here is that over the next few months CSLP is going to come up with a bunch of different ways to help this population (change cost allowances for older students, and maybe for dependents too), re-jig how prior-year income is calculated, raise loan limits for this population, raise grant eligibility, etc etc) and then roll them out in roughly ascending order of how irritating they are for provinces to program. It’s not going to be a big bang, which may limit how well the policy is communicated to its intended targets.
But there’s a bigger issue at play here which the government missed in its haste to get a budget out the door. One of the biggest problems in funding re-training are the artificial breaks in funding and jurisdiction that occur at the 12-month mark. If your program is shorter than that, you’re covered by various provincial labour market initiatives and on the whole your compensation is decent. Longer than that, you’re on fed/prov student aid, which in general is not as generous (and more to the point is repayable). It would be useful for the two levels of government to work together to provide a more seamless set of benefits. Perhaps regardless of program length, learners could benefit from 8 months of the more generous treatment and then move on to a slightly less-generous mixed loan/grant system. This wouldn’t be a quick shift: my guess is that even if you now started talking about how to achieve this, it would still take four or five years for a solid, specific solution to come into view (if you think universities are slow, try federalism). But still, now’s as good a time as any to start, and perhaps the dollars attached to the mature students programs may be a good conversation starter.
My third wish – the one that didn’t get any traction in this budget – was for improvement in student loan repayment. I’m not that disappointed in the sense that I’m not greedy (no budget would ever have given me 3-for-3), but I do think there I work to be done here. Perhaps this gets enacted as part of the follow-up to the Expert Panel on Youth being chaired by Vass Bednar and due for release at some point this spring (although who knows, if the Naylor Report is anything to go by, we could be waiting into 2019). Or perhaps not: it’s not like CSLP hasn’t already been given a huge whack of work for the next couple of years.
But if that’s the worst problem we have in student aid in Canada, I’d say we are in pretty good shape.
(As a coda here, I’d just like to pay tribute to the Canada Student Loans Program’s Director-General, Mary Pichette, who is leaving the public service shortly. Mary’s been involved two big rounds of CSLP reform: the one in 2004/5 which first created the grants for low-income students, and second the ones around the 2016 budget (not just the increase in grants but the many smaller but still important changes to need assessment as well.
I won’t say –I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to – that those two reforms were down to her. But they were down to teams that she led. She did a lot over her two stints in the program to make the policy shop more evidence-based and her legacy is simply that she’s made life easier for literally hundreds of thousands of student across the country. They can’t thank her, but I can. Mary, you will be missed.)