HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation

September 22

Twenty Years Ago Sunday

Five years ago I wrote the following blog, under the headline “fifteen years ago today”.  I think it’s worth running again (with a couple of minor alterations).

On September 24th, 1997, Jean Chrétien rose in the House of Commons to present his reply to the Speech from the Throne. About half-way in, he noted casually that there would likely be a financial surplus that year (a miracle, considering where we’d been in 1995). And he was planning to blow it on something called “Millennium Scholarships.”

Until that exact moment, his caucus had been in the dark about the idea. Indeed, cabinet had been in the dark until the day before. So, too, had the Privy Council Office – Chrétien had deliberately kept them out of the loop because he knew they’d hate it on section 93 grounds and try to top him.

The way the project was pursued in the run-up to the 1998 budget didn’t do the Foundation any favours. There were two basic problems. The first was that it wasn’t clear for months whether these were going to be merit scholarships or need-based grants (in French, the word “bourse” covers both). The public servants at HRDC and Paul Martin wanted it to be about need because they saw the political hay people were making about increasing student debt (note: unlike today, this was a time when debt actually was increasing quite rapidly); Pierre Pettigrew and the Finance mandarins wanted it to be about merit, but for different reasons. Pettigrew has his eye on Quebec and its not unreasonable complaint that the feds were duplicating a provincial program and thought a more merit-based program would take the edge off that argument.  Finance, I think, wanted merit because the top folks there wanted a culture shift in Canada to promote merit (they were also pretty much all Queen’s grads, as far as I could tell, which may or may not explain the fixation).

In the end, 95% was distributed “primarily” on the basis of need, while 5% went to merit. This mix was about right; broad fears of rising tuition and debt required a policy response that emphasized need. Conversely, had more been allocated to merit, the Excellence Awards the Foundation eventually developed would have been devalued – part of what made them special was the fact that they weren’t available to the tens of thousands of students originally envisaged.

The second problem was that no one in Ottawa – including HRDC – really understood how student aid worked. The result was a commitment to give the Foundation’s need-based aid to students with “the highest need” – that is, to exactly the students who already received grants from the provinces. The result was that Millennium awards ended up saving provincial aid programs a bucket-load of money. The Foundation did its best to get provinces to re-invest that money in things that would benefit students. Apart from in Nova Scotia it was reasonably successful though it didn’t always seem that way to the students who were bursary recipients. With some justification, those students were sometimes disappointed; Eddie Goldenberg, the Prime Minister’s Senior Political Advisor whose views on fed-prov relations were…well, let’s just say they lacked subtlety…was apoplectic.

This isn’t the place to recount the Foundation’s history (for that, I recommend Silver Donald Cameron’s book A Million Futures). All you really need to know is that for ten years, the Foundation ran a national social program that wasn’t based in Ottawa and wasn’t one-size fits all. It ran a merit program that was much more than just money-for-marks, and was rigorous about using empirical research to improve our understanding of how to improve access to higher education. It was just a different way of doing student aid.

Now, I’m biased, of course.  I worked at the Foundation.  I met my wife there.  Had Chrietien not risen in the House that day, my daughter literally would not exist and the world would be deprived of its smartest and most beautiful 8 year-old ballet dancer/sumo enthusiast.  But even if none of that were true, I’d still stand by my final comment from five years ago:

The Foundation was created on the back of a cocktail napkin, and suffered from a profoundly goofy governance structure. But within the boundaries of that cocktail napkin, a lot of neat stuff happened. And even though some of what was best about the Foundation has been taken up by the federal government since its demise, the country’s still worse off now that the Foundation’s gone.

December 11

Scholarships, Proximity Talks, and the PQ’s Lost Mojo

In the late 90s, Canada was still seemingly on the edge of a break-up.  But exactly 15 years ago at the Hotel Des Gouverneurs in Quebec City, that started to change, thanks to a scholarship program.

Recall: in the summer of 1997, the Chretien government gave in to a long-standing demand of the Government of Quebec, and the province’s chattering classes, and handed-over powers for labour market training programs.  The silence from said chattering classes was deafening.  Partly in retaliation, Chretien decided he’d poke Quebec in the eye by creating a Millennium Scholarship Foundation to hand out scholarships to all Canadians, including Quebecers (it was created as a private foundation precisely in order to do an end-run around Quebec’s opt-out from the Canada Student Loans Program).

The PQ, predictably, went mental.  Even the provincial Liberals – who back then felt a need to regularly buff their nationalist credentials – joined in, sponsoring a motion in the National Assembly that said Quebec would not work with the Foundation unless: a) Quebec got a proportional share of whatever money was on offer; b) Quebec would get to choose who got the recipients; and, c) there should be no duplication with provincial aid programs.  The PQ agreed because it figured these were terms the Foundation could not meet, and so the motion passed unanimously.  The PQ position was strengthened in the fall of 1998 when it won re-election, in part on a campaign against federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction. Advantage Quebec, right?

What the PQ didn’t reckon on was Norman Riddell, the Foundation’s Executive Director.  He went around the country striking deals with every other province, which more or less met Quebec’s criteria.  He gave every province a share of Foundation money equal to its share of population, he let them “choose” students by saying he’d give money to students with the highest need, but accept provincial decisions about how to define need.  And there’d be no duplication, because he’d pay the provinces a small fee to run the whole thing for him anyway.  Advantage, Foundation.

This annoyed the PQ, because they’d been counting on the feds being unreasonable in order to sustain their Ottawa-is-Satan narrative.  They stalled, claiming it was beneath their dignity to negotiate with a “mere” Foundation, and insisted all negotiations be with Ottawa.  This threw sand in the wheels because Ottawa’s intergovernmental affairs machinery is ponderous to the point of parody.  By December ’99, just a month before money would start to flow in the other nine provinces, there was still no deal.

At which point, la Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) came to the rescue.  It had dawned on students that there was: a) money on the table that their members would miss out on, and b) a deal to be made if the government of Quebec weren’t so obstinate.  The students forced Quebec back to the table.  Of course, Quebec still wouldn’t talk directly to the Foundation.  Instead, the feds had to act as intermediaries, shuttling back and forth between two hotel rooms to strike a deal, just like Northern Irish “proximity talks”.  It was deeply ludicrous, but a deal was eventually done, and Quebec students got their money like everyone else.

A few months later, Bouchard resigned as Quebec premier.  It was mostly because his party rank-and-file had become an enormous pain in the ass, but in his resignation speech Bouchard cited his failure to make Quebecers hate the Foundation as one of the reasons he felt it was time to move on.  Without Bouchard, the sovereignty movement caught a terminal case of lost mojo, and now stands weaker than at any time since the 1960s.

There’s no real point to this story, other than that those proximity talks (in which I participated) happened almost exactly 15 years ago to the day. And that, where student aid policy is concerned, Canada is – and always has been – a pretty goofy place.

September 24

Fifteen Years Ago Today…

Jean Chrétien rose in the House of Commons to present his reply to the Speech from the Throne. About half-way in, he noted casually that there would likely be a financial surplus that year (a miracle, considering where we’d been in 1995). And he was planning to blow it on something called “Millennium Scholarships.”

Until that exact moment, his caucus had been in the dark about the idea. Indeed, cabinet had been in the dark until the day before. So, too, had the Privy Council Office – Chrétien had deliberately kept them out of the loop because he knew they’d hate it.

The way the project was pursued in the run-up to the 1998 budget didn’t do the Foundation any favours. There were two basic problems. One was that it wasn’t clear for months whether these were going to be merit scholarships or need-based grants (in French, the word “bourses” covers both). The civil servants at HRDC and Paul Martin wanted it to be about need; Pierre Pettigrew and the Finance mandarins wanted it to be about merit.

In the end, 95% was distributed “primarily” on the basis of need, while 5% went to merit. This mix was about right; broad fears of rising tuition and debt required a policy response that emphasized need. Conversely, had more been allocated to merit, the excellence awards would have been devalued – part of what made them special was the fact that they weren’t available to the tens of thousands of students originally envisaged.

The second problem was that no one in Ottawa – including HRDC – really understood how student aid worked. The result was a commitment to give the Foundation’s need-based aid to students with “the highest need” – that is, to exactly the students who already received grants from the provinces. The result was that Millennium awards ended up saving provincial aid programs a bucket-load of money. The Foundation did its best to get provinces to re-invest that money. Apart from Ontario and Nova Scotia it was pretty successful. With some justification, students were disappointed; Eddie Goldenberg was apoplectic.

This isn’t the place to recount the Foundation’s history (for that, I recommend Silver Donald Cameron’s A Million Futures. All you really need to know is that for ten years, the Foundation ran a national social program that wasn’t one-size fits all, it ran a merit program that was much more than just money-for-marks, and was rigorous about using empirical research to improve our understanding of how to improve access to higher education. It was just a different way of doing student aid.

The Foundation was created on the back of a cocktail napkin. But within the boundaries of that cocktail napkin, a lot of neat stuff happened. The country’s worse off without it.