I’m going to have to go a little off-piste for the analysis of the New Democratic platform, because its launch was so odd.
The platform was unveiled last Thursday morning. In Saskatoon. While Mulcair himself was in Montreal. This meant that the event was not covered by any of the national press (the biggest outlet that filed a story was the Ottawa Citizen). The announcement itself was unaccompanied by any backgrounder, which meant that many key details were missing, including cost estimates.
On a purely political level, this is incomprehensible. It seems as if the party didn’t actually want their proposal to be covered. But why make a billion-dollar (see below) spending commitment if you’re not going to publicize it?
Then again, maybe it’s better no one made a big deal about it given some of the silly things their candidates said at the event, such as “debt is up 30% since 2006”, which may be true if you look at federal loan volume, but that’s because so many more people are going to school. You know, because of access. In fact, over that period, the incidence of debt is down slightly, while the average value (in real dollars) is up slightly, making the whole file a bit of a wash. Another candidate made a different, utterly ridiculous statement: “governments shouldn’t profit on student loans!” I don’t know whether she got that line from Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump (both have said it), but it’s not even vaguely true, and suggests she knows nothing of how income from student loan interest funds the in-school zero-interest period, the repayment assistance program, and covers the substantial losses the program experiences with defaults.
Anyways, it’s too bad the packaging of the event was so embarrassing, because the substance isn’t so bad. The details, as we know them, are as follows:
First, the NDP proposes to spend an extra quarter of a billion dollars over four years on student grants. That’s all we know. Is it to enrich the current Canada Study Grants (i.e. more money to the same people), or is it to extend the current Canada Study Grant (i.e. give the same money to more people)? Or is it for something new entirely? We have no idea, because the NDP – unlike the other three parties – declined to provide more backgrounders about its policies. Why this is considered acceptable in this day and age is a question for others to answer.
Second, the government plans to “eliminate interest on student loans”. As far as I can tell, no one asked if they meant eliminate interest on all existing loans, or just those consolidated from 2016 forward, or just those issued from 2016 forward. So we don’t know. The fiscal consequences of this are huge. If all loans suddenly become interest free, that’s a hit on the order of $2 billion over 4 years. If it’s all loans consolidated (i.e. going into repayment) then my guess is this is on the order of $700 million or so, and if it is just loans issued then we are talking about maybe $300 million.
(Huge caution: my numbers are very back-of-the-envelope, based on incomplete public data and an inability to model the second-order effects of interest abolition such as savings on RAP and default. Take it as a good-faith attempt to project costs based on limited data. And a total unwillingness of the NDP to reveal any program details or cost assumptions.)
It’s a bit difficult to evaluate the pledge without knowing the costs, but I think we can say two things about the Thursday announcement:
One, regardless of the price tag or details, this platform is substantially better than the usual NDP policy of “let’s cut tuition fees”. It’s more targeted at students in need, and doesn’t run you into all kinds of problems of federal-provincial co-ordination (in contrast to the NDP promise on child care, which runs precisely into this set of problems). That’s a huge improvement over most previous NDP platforms, and the party deserves some love for it.
Two, the zero-interest platform is kind of “meh”. It’s good in the sense that it’s a benefit focused on students with need. But no study I’ve ever seen has suggested that student loan interest rates makes an ounce of difference to access. It’s a cost, but one small and well-hidden enough that it seems to have no bearing on the decision to attend post-secondary. And it’s not entirely clear what problem this is designed to solve: student loan repayment burdens have fallen by more than a third over the last decade. All this subsidy will do is raise the returns to education slightly – a windfall benefit to those who have already decided to make the investment.
A final note: the NDP appear not to be making any announcement on science/innovation. Along with the Tories and Greens, that makes three parties who are making no commitments in these areas, which may mean something fairly dire for granting councils in future.