About a decade ago, a really bad policy idea started making its way across the country’s “have-not” provinces. I can’t remember if it started in Saskatchewan or New Brunswick, but within a couple of years it had spread to Manitoba and Nova Scotia, as well. The details (and generosity) of this policy varied somewhat, but the gist of it was this: “let’s pay our graduates not to leave the province by refunding a portion of their tuition, via tax reductions, once they graduate”. Sometimes this was dressed up as a “talent attraction policy”, in the sense that it would benefit people coming in from outside the province; in the main, however, it was understood that this money was mainly about keeping “our” kids at home.
Now this was a dumb idea from almost any policy perspective you can imagine, but the two most obvious ones are:
1) Effectiveness. Most youth, even in the most economically depressed provinces, tend to stay where they are: in the provinces where these programs were introduced, the “stay” rate ranged from about 75-85%. So even if you bring the stay-rate up by 10 percentage points, that still means that for every student you successfully keep, eight others will get to keep cash for doing exactly what they were going to do anyway.
2) Horizontal equity. If you have a couple of tens of millions in cash that you want to devote to youth – and lord knows there isn’t much of that around – why in the name of all that’s holy would you hand that money over to the group of youth who are the most employable, and have the best prospects? Especially if you’re not actually changing their behaviour, all this does is reduce the cost of education and make it easier for tomorrow’s upper-middle class to start accumulating assets.
Anyways, though it wasn’t much noticed outside the province, Nova Scotia dropped the tax rebate, largely because it was ineffective – young people continued to leave the province. While it drained a lot of money, it simply wasn’t big enough to change many people’s minds about leaving. And this makes sense: if the reason someone moves from Halifax to Toronto is a $10K/year difference in pay, a $2k tax rebate isn’t going to change their mind.
Of course, it would have been a lot better if the Nova Scotia Government had actually put that money back into some other youth-serving purpose – the community college, say, or student assistance (a category in which Nova Scotia remains among the most miserly in the country). But with the province hemorrhaging money, it’s not exactly a surprise that this money is going straight to deficit-reduction, no matter how unfortunate that might be.
Interesting trend, though: first Quebec and now Nova Scotia have started dialling back on tax credits – with no apparent backlash. Hopefully, this is the start of a trend that allows us to restore some sanity to the way we subsidise higher education.