Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Politics

Elections, political parties and platforms, other political issues and processes

January 09

You Couldn’t Make It Up

This email is G-rated, so I can’t use the full range of sexual/scatological imagery needed to describe my true feelings about the Ontario government’s Tuition Rebate announcement last week. I’ll keep it to: I told you so.

To recap, the Ontario Liberals made a not-particularly sensible election promise to give a 30% rebate tuition to full-time dependent students. But at least it involved giving some new money to low-income students, even if it came at the cost of providing a lot of money to families who clearly didn’t need it. And at least their proposal wasn’t as dumb as the CFS critique of it, which demanded (with the usual self-righteousness) that the government give less money to low-income students so that students from families making over $160,000/year not be excluded.

(Seriously: CFS’s definition of “progressive” policies includes ones with redistributive outcomes like the Bush tax cuts. Obviously, student views need to be heard, but let’s not pretend the CFS’s possess intellectual coherence).

Anyways, the Liberals got post-election religion on the deficit and someone, somewhere – the Premier’s office, maybe? – subsequently decided that the new grant had to be revenue-neutral. That meant the rebate went from being a good-news new money story to a money-shuffling what-the-hell? story.

The source of the $400 million needed to fund the rebates is still unclear. We know that some will come from the elimination of the Textbook Grant – hilarity alert: this was the Liberals’ signature PSE promise in the 2007 election – the Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship and the Ontario Student Trust Fund. We also know that some will come from displacement; students with relatively high need who get the new grant up front will get less OSOG at the end of the day (something the Liberals who spun this three months ago swore blind was never going to happen).

Now, those two sources don’t add up to nearly $400 million, so there’s some more cuts coming that we don’t know about. But based on what we do know:

– Students from high-income families who get this grant will be $800-$1,600 richer. Students from low-income families who are needy enough to receive OSOG will be no better off because of displacement.
– The Textbook Grant and the QEII were more narrowly targeted on income than the rebate – killing one to fund the other means, on aggregate, shifting money from poorer families to better-off ones.

Bottom line: cannibalizing existing programs to fund the Tuition Rebate means more money for upper-income families and less money for low-income ones. Oddly, the CFS is still unhappy, despite this being exactly what they asked for. Not just bad policy, then: bad policy presented so poorly your main critics don’t realize they got their wish.

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

January 04

A Harper-ized Canada Student Loans Program

I rarely say this about a Jane Taber article, but her Christmas Eve piece on Prime Minister Harper’s stewarding of federal-provincial relations was mildly fascinating. Her thesis is that Harper is gradually starting to impose his vision of water-tight federalism and has a long-term plan to get the federal government to back off and let provinces get on with doing whatever they are supposed to do under Article 92 of the Constitution.

So, what’s the impact on higher education? I doubt there’s reason to worry about the federal commitment to research – Harper’s attachment to the innovation agenda seems reasonably strong though it’s possible the budget review might have some nasty surprises for SSHRC. The government’s commitment to keeping 25% of the Canada Social Transfer notionally “reserved” for education is also probably safe (to the extent that matters in the slightest).

But student loans are another story altogether; it’s not outside the realm of possibility that these could see a major shake-up over the next four years. For starters, they are after all the ultimate fed-prov governance nightmare. Part-federal, part-provincial, each clutching their own portion of the program so tightly that integrated communications programs that students can actually understand remain a challenge even after 47 years in operation.

Then there’s the fact that there’s an enormous amount of equalization built into the program, which always seems to irk the Tories. Per capita, students out east are getting substantially more aid than students in Ontario and the west because of higher borrowing rates (since default rates are also higher, that aid also costs more).

What might a Harper-ized student aid system look like? It would be relatively easy to change the program into a system of block-transfers to provinces, and one could do so without doing violence to the principles of CSLP providing provinces agreed to three simple principles in return:

– a common need assessment system to ensure equal treatment for students across the country
– all student aid to be portable to ensure mobility
– visibility for the federal government’s contribution (OSAP to become COSAP, for instance)

In return for just those three commitments, Harper and co. could get out of the business of handling student loans and just cut big cheques to the provinces who in turn will use the money to create simpler, integrated programs that are easier to understand, that work for students and that align with local political priorities. And in a number of ways, the system would be better than the one we have now.

It probably won’t happen; Harper’s not aching for a largely symbolic fight about education and fiscal federalism. But don’t rule it out.

November 02

Many Bolognas

I spent part of October in Bucharest at the Bologna Future of Higher Education conference, trying, as I always do at these things, to get my head around what is happening in European higher education.

Part of the problem of trying to follow the Bologna Process is that there are many Bolognas that exist side by side. There is the “formal” Bologna – which is actually a crashing bore, unless you’re really into diploma supplements and qualifications frameworks and quality assurance processes – and the “informal” Bologna of student-centred learning, social dimensions and the Tuning process (basically, all the stuff Cliff Adelman writes about), which is all pretty groovy and gets most of the attention.

There is the Bologna of the Communiqués, the strong declarations about progress made and future challenges to be met, and the much messier Bologna of the Trenches, where the high phrases meet the cold reality of institutional reality. The latter, believe me, is a heck of a lot messier than anyone lets on.

There is European Bologna, which is what everyone agrees to, and there are the many Local Bolognas. Pretty much every country has its own, independent Bologna process because – being a process rather than a set of objectives or legal obligations – most national governments have been able to slip all sorts of local reforms (sometimes petty and irritating, sometimes decades overdue) over on higher education systems. As a result, the Bologna process has proceeded differently in different countries.

Finally, there is the Bologna of the Politicians (and sometimes Rectors, too), who deal in high politics, and the Bologna of the Education Policy Nerds (my peeps!), who have managed to use the brief policy opening offered by the initial flood of Bologna-mania to initiate and sustain a number of continent-wide discussions about a variety of pedagogical, curricular and managerial modernizations.

It is kind of amazing how all of these different Bolognas manage to co-exist side by side. We Canadians sometimes like to think of ourselves as flexible and pragmatic compared to those stuffy and inflexible continentals, but I’m pretty sure we’d have a nervous breakdown trying to deal with what Europeans take in their stride.

How do they do it? Basically, they don’t get hung up on small ideas like unanimity and full compliance. They get a critical mass of institutions or countries together with a bunch of stakeholders and start moving in one direction on an issue. If the others don’t join or don’t catch up, that’s their problem.

We could do that, too, on files like learning outcomes or credit transfer, if we really tried, and someone were willing to start the ball rolling. But it’s an approach so foreign to our psyche, my guess is it will never happen.

September 22

By Their Actions Shall Ye Know Them

There are two ways of thinking about student unions. You can think of them as being (a) populated by idealists, who only want education for all, or you can think of them as (b) actual unions, prioritizing wins (financial and otherwise) for their members – who, let’s recall, tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than society as a whole – ahead of any other cause.

With that in mind, let’s look at the some recent public statements from the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter.

March 2011 – The Canadian Federation of Students says it is “disappointed” that the Ontario budget included measures to improve access by increasing spaces rather than reduce tuition fees for students who are already in post-secondary.

September 2011 – The Ontario Liberal party announces it will reduce tuition fees by thirty percent for every student from a family earning less than $160,000 per year. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says it would prefer a solution that spent more money to include families earning over $160,000 as well (who, last we checked, weren’t having problems accessing PSE).

Both incidents seem to lend themselves to the interpretation that the CFS cares only about money for all of its members. This is, of course, an entirely fair and reasonable position for a union to take.

But then, a new piece of evidence arrives that really makes you wonder:

September 2011 – CFS-O issues its party platform report card for the Ontario election. The NDP platform, which freezes tuition fees and eliminates interest on student loans, gets a B+ for affordability. The Liberal platform, which provides tuition rebates of 30% for 85% all of students, but allows base tuition to continue to creep upwards, gets a B. The report card helpfully points out that the Liberal tuition promise would cost $430 million annually, while the NDP interest elimination and tuition freeze would cost $110 million.

Even from the crude analytical perspective of “how much students get,” this makes zero sense. The only students who would be better off under the NDP proposals would be those from households with over $160,000. And while the NDP proposal does contain the holy grail of “freezing tuition,” the Liberal proposal hands students almost a billion more dollars over four years than the NDP one does.

That’s an awful lot of money to punt for the right to say that tuition is frozen, and isn’t consistent with our earlier theory about being their being solely concerned with financial wins. Rather, it suggests deep confusion about the difference between means and ends.

September 15

The Manitoba Election

Just to show we’re not irretrievably Ontario-centric, we’ll be doing short snapshots of party platforms in all provinces with elections this fall.

First up, my home province of Manitoba.

Choices are stark in the only province to have shot its way into confederation: in the last 11 elections, only one has resulted in a minority government and only one resulted in the Conservatives and New Democrats combined receiving less than 85% of the seats. It’s one or the other (which if nothing else is handy to keep this note below 350 words). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NDP is going big on PSE; holding tuition to inflation, promising 5% annual increases in operating grants to institutions, and increasing student financial aid (the wording in the platform is vague enough to encompass both need- and merit-based grants, but given the party’s recent history, it would be surprising if it were not the former). It’s not a particularly inspiring or visionary platform – more sort of status quo plus a couple of percentage points. But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than most Canadian institutions can expect over the next few years.

The Tories have rolled out a number of specific-yet-vague policies. They want to make sure higher education is “focused on the market,” say they will “support University College of the North to encourage additional training opportunities for Northerners” and “ensure that there is a credit transfer system.” All of which is well and good, but rather beg the question, “How, exactly?”

Intriguingly, the Tories have matched the NDP on holding tuition to inflation. But they’ve not said anything about grants to institutions. Which isn’t surprising since they’re talking about closing a $500 million budget gap plus reducing a raft of taxes. That inevitably means spending cuts, and while post-secondary education might be spared, it’s nevertheless unlikely a Macfayden government would provide institutions with anything like the annual increases the NDP are promising. Seems Canada’s becoming more European by the day: freezing prices commands universal political support but ensuring strong funding to institutions doesn’t. It’s time institutions began paying attention.


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