Back again for some more election platform analysis. This week: the Conservatives. But first, a caveat. Part of the problem with trying to analyze party platforms in a 326-day election is that one’s rhythm gets all thrown off. In a five-week campaign, all of the announceables are pretty much there in the first 21 days or so, so you more or less know when a party’s done announcing things. In this election, we’re weeks into the campaign and we can’t be completely sure if the parties are done announcing things, unless, like the Greens, they actually publish the entire manifesto at once (an idea which, judging by their behaviour, the other parties find ridiculously passé). So what I’m about to analyze is the Conservative platform as of Wednesday the 16th of September. It’s possible there is a little more to come, but I have a feeling there isn’t – if I’m wrong, I will add some analysis later in the campaign.
Now, I should start by acknowledging that there loads of people in PSE who won’t care a fig what Conservatives promise, because they think the Harper record consists entirely of some kind of “War on Science”. Long-time readers will know I’m not a fan of that theory: treatment of science and data within government (e.g. the long-from census) has been pretty horrible, but they haven’t done so badly on funding of academic science. Arguably, by historic standards, their support has been the second-best of any government in Canadian history. Their problem, however, is that first place goes to their immediate predecessors.
Anyways, the Tory strategy on higher education in this election seems to be to go with small, but tightly-targeted promises. The first, released a couple of days after the election call, was a change to the Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (not to be confused with the much sillier Apprenticeship Completion Bonus). This credit targets employers, which is the right focus, since they are the ones who control the supply of apprenticeship “places”. Currently, it provides employers with a non-refundable tax credit of up to 10% of wages paid to each first- and second-year apprentice employed, up to a maximum of $2,000 per employee. The tweak announced on August 3rd was to include third- and fourth-year apprentices, and bump the maximum reclaimable amount to $2,500.
This is one of those “meh” announcements. Does it do a lot of good? Probably not. The credit makes sense in first and second year because those employees are noobs who require so much supervision that they don’t always add value. By their third and fourth year, however, apprentices are getting hired because they add value to an employer, not because there’s a tax break involved (and in any case, in a lot of companies, the people doing the taxes don’t always talk to the HR people who make hiring decisions, so the logic model here of how this increases the supply of spaces isn’t perfect). But on the other hand, it doesn’t do a lot of harm either. It’s small ball – I didn’t see a cost estimate for this, but it’s got to be somewhere in the $30-50 million range.
The other, better announcement had to do with improvements to the system of Canada Education Savings Grants (CESG). You remember those? Introduced in 1998, they initially paid a 20 cent top-up on every dollar placed in a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), up to a maximum of $400/year (later increased to $500). About ten years ago the system was tweaked to create something called an A-CESG, which changed the top-up rate on the first $500 contributed to 40 cents on the dollar for families in the bottom income quartile, and 30 cents on the dollar for those in the second quartile. In early September, the Conservatives announced they would raise those top-ups again, to 60 cents and 40 cents, respectively.
Some of the usual suspects dismissed this announcement out-of-hand because “savings are only for the rich”. That’s idiotic – it’s right there in the design that this money only goes to families with below-median income. In that sense, this is a tight, targeted, progressive measure. But like with the apprenticeship credit, you have to wonder if it’s actually going to change anything. Why give more money to people who are already saving, rather than – say – adjusting the Canada Learning Bond (which essentially kick-starts RESPs for low-income families by making a $500 initial donation) and making it an automatic benefit, instead of an application-based one? It’s not so much that it’s a bad promise; it’s just less effective than it could be.
This, to my mind, sort of sums up the Conservative record. They can be counted on to do something every year for post-secondary education: just not always the most effective thing.
Next week: probably the NDP, if they’ve fully release their platform.