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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Elections

September 12

NDP Leadership Race Notes

So the deadline to sign up for the federal NDP leadership passed a couple of weeks ago, and the first deadline for the mail-in ballots is next Monday.  So what to make of the four candidates and their views on post-secondary education?   Based on their platforms and a series of responses to a questionnaire on Science policy from Evidence for Democracy (responses available here), my take is as follows:

Jagmeet Singh.  Nothing.  He has a lot of policy proposals on various topics but effectively nothing on skills, education and how to pay for them.  He is also the only one of the four candidates specifically avoided making any commitments at all with respect to the Naylor Report.

Charlie Angus.  On the skills side Angus says he would “establish a labour market partners’ forum so government can work with labour and other stakeholders to develop programs and make Canada’s labour market development programs more accessible by lowering the eligibility requirement.”  I am not entirely sure what this means, though the use of the term “eligibility requirements” seems to imply that he’s talking about skills acquisitions as being entirely tied to Employment Insurance, which is somewhat restrictive (even though Angus does simultaneously promise it to make it easier to qualify for EI).

On post-secondary generally, Angus says he would work “towards a comprehensive education accord with the provinces that eliminates tuition, ensures adequate funding for research, sets standards for mental health and sexual assault policies, and improves working conditions for students, staff and adjunct or contract faculty on campus,” which suggests ambition if not a totally firm grasp on how federalism works (also: no price tag attached).  He also says he wants to eliminate interest on Canada Student Loans (bad idea), put new money into PSSSP for Indigenous students and extend it to include bridging programs, increase weekly loan limits for all students and better harmonize federal & provincial retraining programs (all excellent ideas).  And finally, with respect to Science, Angus is pro-Naylor (committed to implementing the report, full stop) and anti-superclusters.

Guy Caron.  For a former CFS chair, Caron is awfully quiet about PSE (then again, as an MP from Quebec, his perspective may have changed somewhat).  From an income standpoint, his Basic Income scheme – everyone over 18 gets their income topped up to at least equal Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut Off  would pretty much take care of the need to increase student aid any time soon.  But also in Caron’s platform is a genuinely intriguing mention of an “Activity Account for Lifelong Learning” which is describes thusly: “financed by contributions from workers, employers, and the federal government, the account will enable its holder to finance lifetime learning and job retraining. It would be portable so that if the individual moved or switched jobs, the account would migrate with them”.  The notion is not developed further, so it’s hard to say exactly what’s intended, but it sounds a lot like a mix of CPP/EI (compulsory deductions) with RESPs (government top-ups) for personal use.  In principle there’s much to like about this kind of idea though it’s worth remembering that a badly-implemented version of this idea cost the UK government hundreds of millions of dollars back in 2001.  Caron also supports full implementation of the Naylor report.

Niki Ashton.  This is the big one.  Ashton promises to:

  • Eliminate tuition fees, as per the proposal made by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  That would cost $3.5 Billion, and still depends on a) provinces being willing to pick up half the bill, and provinces being willing to accept massively different levels of federal support to so (basically, provinces currently doing most would receive the least under this program, leading to the obvious problems I described back here).
  • Reduce tuition for international students to “affordable levels”.  No financial details as to what possible mechanism would compel institutions or provinces to go along with this, or whether it has even occurred to her that most HEIs would sharply reduce intake of international students if this ever happened (unless the feds ponied up a couple of extra billion in compensation).
  • Eliminating interest on Canada Student Loans and doubling the repayment threshold so students do not need to repay loans if earning under $50,000.  It’s hard to tell from the platform, but this looks like a retroactive commitment – that is, it applies to all outstanding student loans.  That’s an expensive commitment, since international evidence shows that raising the threshold usually has significant knock-on effects in terms of lifetime repayment rates.
  • Increase funding for Aboriginal PSE.  Basically the promise here is to fulfill the TRC recommendation to get rid of the 2% cap (which the Trudeau government already ditched last budget), fund the backlog of First Nations applicants and include Metis students in this funding arrangement.
  • Increase funding for graduate students and “equalize research funding across disciplines”.  My interpretation of this is that it means increasing the SSHRC budget relative to those of NSERC and CIHR, but it’s not 100% clear.
  • With respect to Naylor’s recommendations, Ashton carefully says she is committed to “addressing” them, but carefully avoids any comment at all on the big issue of a $1.3 Billion increase in funding.  The bits she likes involves “re-balancing” funding and handing more money to grad students, post-docs and early career scientists.  If one were being uncharitable, one might suspect that she cares about government funding for science mainly as an income support mechanism for scientists rather than a means for actually performing scientific endeavours.

No argument from me on the Indigenous funding, but apart from that, my comments on Ashton’s platform are largely the same ones I had on the Green Party platform in the 2015 election (to which this bears more than a passing resemblance): so many billions of dollars, and not one of them going to increase the quality of provision or increase the number of student seats.  It’s all about cheaper.  Such a waste.

Anyways, if I’m ranking these platforms, Angus probably edges it.  His PSE accord idea is unworkable, but the pledges on Indigenous education and harmonizing training funding are good.  Caron would come second for the originality of his learning account idea.  Ten points to Ashton for thinking PSE is important, another ten for her position on Indigenous education but minus several hundred for the actual, wasteful substance.  Singh is simply missing in action.

The first round of voting takes place October 2nd; should extra ballots be required, they will take place on the following two weekends.  Best of luck to all.

April 17

British Columbia: Provincial Manifesto Analysis

On May 9th, our left-coasters go to the polls.  What are their options as far a post-secondary education is concerned?

Let’s start with the governing Liberals.  As is often the case with ruling parties, some of their promises are things that are both baked into the fiscal framework and will take longer than one term to complete (e.g. “complete re-alignment of $3 billion in training funds by 2024”), or are simply re-announcements of previous commitments (page 85-6 of the manifesto appears to simply be a list of all the SIF projects the province already agreed to co-fund), or take credit for things that will almost certainly happen anyways (“create 1000 new STEM places”…. in a province which already has 55,000 STEM seats and where STEM spots have been growing at a rate of about 1700/year anyway…interestingly the Liberals didn’t even bother to cost that one…)

When you throw those kinds of promises away, what you are left with is a boatload of micro-promises, including: i) making permanent the current BC Training Tax Credit for employers, ii) creating a new Truck Logger training credit (yes, really), iii) spending $10M on open textbooks over the next 4 years, iv) reducing interest rates on BC student loans to prime, v) making minor improvements to student aid need assessment, vi) providing a 50% tuition rebate to Armed Forces Veterans, vii) creating a centralized province-wide admission system and viii) allowing institutions to build more student housing (currently they are restricted from doing so because any institutional debt is considered provincial debt and provincial debt is more or less verboten…so this is a $0 promise just to relax some rules).  There’s nothing wrong with any of those, of course, but only the last one is going to make any kind of impact and as a whole it certainly doesn’t add up to a vision.  And not all of this appears to be new money: neither the student loan changes nor the centralized application system promises are costed, which suggests funds for these will cannibalized from elsewhere within the system.  The incremental cost of the remaining promises?  $6.5 million/year.  Whoop-de-do.  Oh, and they’re leaving the 2% cap on tuition rises untouched.

What about the New Democrats?  Well, they make two main batches of promises.  One is about affordability, and consists of matching the Liberal pledge on a tuition cap, slightly outdoing them on provincial student loan interest (eliminating it on future and past loans, which is pretty much the textbook definition of “windfall gains”), and getting rid of fees for Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language Program (which, you know, GOOD).  There’s also an oddly-worded pledge to provide a $1,000 completion grant “for graduates of university, college and skilled trades programs to help pay down their debt when their program finishes”: based on the costing and wording, I think that means the grant is restricted to those who have provincial student loans.

The NDP also has a second batch of policies around research – $50M over two years to create a graduate scholarship fund and $100M (over an unspecified period, but based on the costing, it’s more than two years) to fund expansion of technology-related programs in BC PSE institutions.  There is also an unspecified (and apparently uncosted) promise to expand tech-sector co-op programs.  Finally, they are also promising to match the Liberals on the issue of allowing universities to build student housing outside of provincial controls on capital spending.

Finally, there are the Greens, presently running at over 20% in the polls and with a real shot at achieving a significant presence in the legislature for the first time.  They have essentially two money promises: one, “to create a need-based grant system” (no further details) and two, an ungodly bad idea to create in BC the same graduate tax credit rebate that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and now Manitoba all have had a shot at (at least those provinces had the excuse that they were trying to combat out-migration; what problem are the BC Greens trying to solve?).

Hilariously, the Green’s price-tag for these two items together is…$10 million.  Over three years.  Just to get a sense of how ludicrous that is, the Manitoba tax credit program cost $55 million/year in a province a quarter the size.  And within BC, the feds already give out about $75M/year in up-front grants.  So I think we need to credit the Greens with being more realistic than their federal cousins (remember the federal green manifesto?  Oy.), but they have a ways to go on realistic budgeting.

(I am not doing a manifesto analysis for the BC Conservatives because a) they haven’t got one and b) I’ve been advised that if they do release one it will probably be printed in comic sans.)

What to make of all this?  Under Gordon Campbell, the Liberals were a party that “got” post-secondary education and did reasonably well by it; under Christy Clark it’s pretty clear PSE can at best expect benign neglect.  The Greens’ policies focus on price rather than quality, one of their two signature policies is inane and regressive, and their costing is off by miles.

That leaves the NDP.  I wouldn’t say this is a great manifesto, but it beats the other two.  Yeah, their student aid policies are sub-optimally targeted (they’re all for people who’ve already finished their programs, so not much access potential), but to their credit they’ve avoided going into a “tuition freezes are magic!” pose.  Alone among the parties, they are putting money into expansion and graduate studies and even if you don’t like the tech focus, that’s still something.

But on the whole, this is a weak set of manifestos.  I used to say that if I was going to run a university anywhere I’d want it to be In British Columbia.  It’s the least-indebted jurisdiction in Canada, has mostly favourable demographics, has easy access from both Asia (and its students) and from the well-off American northwest.  And it’s got a diversified set of institutions which are mostly pretty good at what they do.  Why any province would want to neglect a set of institutions like that is baffling; but based on these manifestos it seems clear that BC’s PSE sector isn’t getting a whole lot of love from any of the parties.  And that’s worrying for the province’s long-term future.

April 05

Manitoba Election Manifesto Analysis

So, with Saskatchewan’s election out of the way (results unknown at time of writing but I assume it was a Sask Party blowout), it’s time to focus now on the election in next-door Manitoba.  This is somewhat difficult because neither the governing NDP nor the opposition Progressive Conservatives have chosen to do anything so mundane as issue platforms, preferring instead to simply issues a bunch of “priorities” or “announcements”.  The reason for this is straightforward: the Tories are up 20 points and provided no one catches Brian Pallister drinking blood in public, they will win the province’s biggest majority in over a century.  But it can lead to some confusion over what is actually being promised.  Like when Greg Selinger pledged to double the number of yurts in the province.  He said it, but there’s no corresponding pledge on the party website – so is it a promise, or not?

(Obviously the duty of any social democratic government to rectify the market failure in yurts should be clear; the real question is why it’s taken this government 16.5 years to act on this imperative.  I digress).

Enough grumbles: here’s the lowdown.

Over the past sixteen years, the NDP have treated higher education tolerably well.  They’ve put a reasonable amount of money into need-based student assistance (introducing a loan remission program in their first year in office).  Money to institutions has gone up slightly more than the Canadian average, but much of it was to compensate for a decade-long tuition freeze, so in fact the institutions’ net financial position ended up lagging the rest of the country somewhat.

But in the last few years, Manitoba has been arguably the best government in the country – the only one which has consistently given institutions increases ahead of inflation.  That’s pretty good.  On the other hand, it has also introduced one of those god-awful graduate tax rebates, with the result that – provided you graduate on time and stay in the province – you’re likely to receive more in grants and tax credits/rebates than you pay in tuition.  That’s inane. 

The NDP’s initial instinct in PSE always seems to be “how can we hand money to students”?  Its election promise to convert the provincial student loan program into a fully grant-based program, as well as spend $4.5 million doubling the funding for the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative (MSBI), which is a 1-to-1 top-up for private donations made to institutions for the purpose of establishing scholarships. 

The Liberals appear to have made only one pledge in post-secondary education: that is, to match the NDP on converting loans to grants.  The Tories also appear to have only one promise, and that is to make two changes to the MSBI – increase it by 50% (that is, 50% more than now, but still $2.25M short of what NDP are promising), but changing the rules so it is not a 1-1 leverage but a 1-2 leverage (i.e. $2 in donations triggers $1 in matching funding).  This, apparently, will “leverage more money from the private sector”, which is a stretch if you ask me.  None of the parties seems inclined to touch the demonstrably wasteful and ineffective graduate tax rebate.

The NDP have also made two specific commitments to institutions: to fund a $12 million expansion of student family housing at the University of Brandon (I know little about this project but I assume it would be focused specifically on helping aboriginal students) and a $150 million commitment to the University of Manitoba’s “Front and Center” capital campaign, 80% of which is dedicated to infrastructure.  And if you find it strange that the government is contributing to a capital campaign, well, that’s Manitoba for you.

What’s distressing here is that – as in Saskatchewan – none of the parties have made any pledges at all with respect to core funding of institutions.  Now that might not be disastrous since not one of the parties are looking to implement swingeing cuts (although the left take it for granted that the Tories are lying about only wanting to restrain the rate of growth in government spending), but it does suggest that no one thinks core funding is a priority.  And that’s a problem for the whole sector.

Bottom line: if you’re voting on PSE alone, you vote NDP based both on past record and present promises.  They spend a lot of money on PSE, even if too much of it is wasteful and ineffective.  But the opposition parties don’t appear to put a lot of thought into anything other than how to hand more money to students.  And we probably shouldn’t reward parties with such one-dimensional views of higher education.

March 21

An Orgy of Bad Policy in Saskatchewan

Two weeks from today, voters in Saskatchewan go to the polls.  You may be forgiven for not having noticed this one coming since it has barely registered in the national press.  And that’s not just because of the usual central Canadian obliviousness, or because it’s a fly-over province; it’s also because this is one of the least competitive match-ups since…. well, since the last time Brad Wall won re-election.  CBC’s poll currently gives the Saskatchewan Party a 25 point lead over the New Democrats.

Normally, when provinces go to the polls I do a detailed look at their post-secondary platforms.  It hardly seems worth it here.  Neither the Liberals nor the Greens have a chance of taking a seat so frankly, who cares?  The NDP has released a platform full of promises large and small (my particular favourite: on page 34, they pledge to put more refrigerators in public liquor stores in order to provide more cold beer options), but did not even bother to put out a costing document, which suggests not even they think they have a hope in hell of winning on April 4.  For their part, the Saskatchewan Party has put out a manifesto, which basically says “elect us and the good times will continue to roll”: no strong vision of the future, just a recounting of past glories and four small promises that add up to a total of $110M over four years.  The only manifesto I can think of that comes close to this in sheer complacency is the Liberal Red Book from the 2000 federal election.  Which, given that oil is still around $40/barrel, is quite something.

But hey, when you’re writing a daily blog, sometimes you need an easy target. So here goes:

The Saskatchewan NDP platform on PSE is pretty awful.  They want to “improve funding for post-secondary institutions” (By how much?  Who knows?  There’s no costing document).  They want to offer everyone a $1,000 rebate on tuition, which everyone knows is regressive.  They also want to convert all provincial loans, but this actually isn’t much money since Saskatchewan aid is mostly grant.  But, get this: they also want to get rid of interest on outstanding provincial loans, which is just a whole mountain of dumb since it has no effect whatever on access, and rewards people for choices they made years ago.  Offering to help borrowers in distress is sensible; a blanket interest subsidy for people who have already finished their studies implies the manifesto-writer has suffered some kind of head trauma.

Still, in some ways, the NDP platform looks good in comparison to what the Saskatchewan Party is offering.  As some of you probably know, for the past decade or so the Government of Saskatchewan has offered a generous set of tax credits to graduates who stay within the province.  Essentially, if you are a university graduate you can reduce your payable provincial taxes by $2,000/year for the first four years that you live in the province, and $4,000 per year for the next three (if you don’t earn enough in a given year to use all of that, you can carry forward to a future year; amounts are reduced slightly for college graduates).  Add to this the usual panoply of federal and provincial tax credits, and you realize that Saskatchewan graduates who stay in the province are receiving more in tax benefits than they ever pay in tuition.

If that formulation sounds familiar, it should – it’s exactly the way Ontario finally figured out it could market itself as having “free tuition” to low-income students without spending a penny.  But the Saskatchewan Party, instead of following Ontario and transferring money to a more front-ended set of incentives, has decided to double-down on the back-end.  Their big post-secondary-related pledge is to allow graduates to take up to $10,000 unused rebate money and use it as a down payment on the purchase of a house.

Yes, I am serious.  Check it out.  Page 8.

I mean, in a way, it’s genius; a twofer tax credit, combining the middle-class’ two fondest wishes: that government subsidize both their education and their house purchases.  And if you assume the basic premise that graduates need financial inducements to stay in the province, why not make that financial inducement in the form of a housing subsidy, which physically ties graduates to the province?

But in another, deeper, way it’s a travesty.  If the Saskatchewan Party has done such a fantastic job managing the economy, why does the province still need this financial inducement to get people to stay in the province?  If the argument is that “young people need a break”, why give so much to those likeliest to succeed (i.e. university grads) and nothing to those least likely (those who never make it to PSE)?

So, yeah, Saskatchewan.  Yet another province with a bi-partisan consensus that all the specified PSE goodies should go to students and graduates rather than, you know, the actual institutions who provide the education.  Raspberries all around.

October 20

OK, Everybody Take A Valium

Heady scenes last night.  We have a new government with a strong mandate.  And it’s not the by-now reviled Conservatives.  It can seem like a whole new world is emerging.

But as far as PSE is concerned, very little actually changed last night.  Higher education is mostly a provincial responsibility, and nothing that happened can change the fact that most provincial budgets are in a parlous state, and few governments (bar perhaps Alberta’s) seem much interested in spending on post-secondary education.

Did anything change federally?  Well, tone.  I would bet the phrase “commiting sociology” won’t be used as a term of abuse any time soon.  But as I have noted in a platform analyses here, here, and here, the Liberal platforms contains: i) no new transfer money for provinces; ii) no new money for granting councils; and, iii) no new money (or not very much anyways) for student aid – though they are promising a major and welcome re-jig of student aid, which will be to the benefit of some students from below-median income families.

That’s not very good news, but there is a base that can be built upon.  This is a government that will be more sympathetic to the concerns of the knowledge economy than the last one.  They likely can be brought round to the merits of basic science, provided that there are convincing answers for improving private sector innovation.  And to the extent that significant improvements can be made without spending a dime (do read Jim Woodgett’s A Decade of Mishandling  Science in Canada for more on this), I suspect there will be some willing ears in government.

But it’s not going to happen on its own.  The whole post-secondary community needs to speak with a single voice on this.  And it needs to speak quickly.  The basic policy framework for the new government will be set in weeks, not months.  Let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

October 16

Election 2015: Last Thoughts

Voting day Monday.  So before y’all head out to the polls, here are a few last thoughts on each party’s position on post-secondary education, science, and innovation.

One: The Green platform is a vacuous embarrassment.  If you’re voting on higher ed issues, do not vote for this.

Two: It is an excellent thing in this election that all three major parties decided to focus their PSE initiatives specifically on families from below-median incomes.  The Tories are doing it through targeted measures on educational savings, the NDP and Liberals are doing it through new student grants (with the latter paying for it by taking tax credits away, thus actually raising prices for richer families).  No universal tax credits.  No schemes to lower tuition.  Just intelligent, targeted programming.  I’m immensely heartened by this.  It implies there is hope yet.

Three: Well, sort of… because pretty much all of the Science/Innovation policy on offer is pretty depressing.  Yes, lots of good stuff from Liberals and New Democrats about restoring freedom to science, creating various types of official science councils/advisors, restoring the long-form census, etc. etc., but when you get right down to it what’s on offer is this:

Liberals: hundreds of millions of dollars to incubators and accelerators.  Nothing to universities or colleges.

Conservatives: lots of tiny research promises: $24M for advanced manufacturing hubs, $45M to Brain Canada, $150M to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.  $4.5 Million for – I cannot believe I am writing this – Lobster Biomass Research (clearly, the Tories are in thrall to “Big Crustacean”).  Some of this might end up at universities (the Brain Canada money, for instance), but this is small bones.

NDP: The only party to actually suggest giving money to the granting councils (yay!), they budgeted a grant total of $55 million for the next four years.  Or about 25% of what inflation is likely to be (boo!), meaning the real value of council funding will continue to fall.

Greens: negative money for research because they’re going to shut down anything related to GMOs or Atomic Energy.  Because, you know, evidence-based policy-making. (Did I mention not to vote Green on higher ed issues?)

All of which is to say, scientists who want to communicate the need for more investment in basic research need to go back to the drawing board. Because on this evidence, something is going seriously wrong.

Four:  Nobody even mentioned the idea that we should touch transfer payments and get money to institutions that way. If you grew up watching politics in the 80s and 90s (as I did), this is almost unfathomable.  But it possibly represents a matured understanding of how the Federation is supposed to work.

Five: If you rank the parties on how much money they want to throw at students, access, and PSE institutions, it would look like this:

1) Green – several bazillion dollars (who’s counting?).

2) NDP – somewhere north of $1 billion.

3) Conservatives  – somewhere south of $100M.

4) Liberals – In net terms, according to their own manifesto $0 (in practice possibly higher than that).  But a more effective re-arrangement of existing dollars.

One probably shouldn’t get too depressed by this. Thinking back to the Tories: they’ve never campaigned on more money for research, but they always found a way to come up with something in every budget.  It might not have been quite what people wanted, and it might not have been as large as people would have liked, but there was never nothing.  Manifestos give you the baseline, not the entirety of a new government’s plans.  Improvisation happens.  Science can still get more than is on-offer here; it just needs to up its game.

Go vote.  And to Hull-Aylmer’s Greg Fergus, the best PSE candidate in this election: in bocca al lupo.

October 07

Party Platform Analysis: Science and Innovation

In the platform analyses I’ve done so far (for the Greens, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals), I’ve focused mostly on the stuff around student finance.  But in doing so, I’ve left out certain platform elements on science and innovation, specifically from the Liberals and the New Democrats.

There are some pretty broad similarities between the two parties’ programs, even though they package them somewhat differently.  Both are long on promises about process.  The Liberals will appoint a Chief Science Officer; the NDP will go one better, and appoint an Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer AND create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.  Both promise to “unmuzzle” scientists; both promise to bring back the long-form census (which I personally find irritating – shouldn’t we at least try to move into 21st century with an administrative register?).  Both promise to make government data “open”; additionally, the Liberals promise to ensure their policies are “evidence-based”.  The word “independence” shows up a lot: Liberals want to give it to Statscan, without actually specifying what the word means; the NDP want to restore it to the granting agencies, without specifying what the word means.  They also want to re-establish scientific capacity in government, but apparently aren’t allocating any money for it, so you know, take that with a grain of salt.

The differences, such as they are, are about where to spend the lucre.  The Liberals have set aside an extra $600 million over three years for an “Innovation Agenda”, which will “significantly expand support to incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support”.  This, apparently, is meant to “create successful networks like the German and American partnerships between business government and university/college research”.

Genuinely, I have no idea what they are talking about.  Which German and American programs?  The Fraunhofer institute?  The Tories already did that when they converted NRC to an applied research shop.  As near as I can tell, this seems to be innovation-speak for “let’s give money to middle-men between academia and business”.  Which is not promising.  I mean, even assuming that early-stage commercialization is the real bottleneck in our innovation system (and where’s the evidence for that, evidence-based policy guys?), why is this the right way to go about fixing it?  Weren’t the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research supposed to do the same thing, albeit from another angle?  Shouldn’t we – you know, wait for some evidence about what works and what doesn’t?

The Liberals also are promising another $100 million over three years to the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which would normally make me want to tear my eyes out, but apparently it’s all going into something that is meant to mimic the US Small Business Innovation and Research Program, which does tend to get high marks.  But, significantly, there is not an extra cent for educational institutions, and not an extra cent for the granting councils.

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are talking much smaller sums: $105 million over four years to “support researchers in post-secondary institutions”.  A helpful NDP staffer has clarified for me that this actually means money to the granting councils, which would make the NDP the only party to commit to more council funding.  That said, unless inflation dips below 1% (unlikely, but not impossible), that amount is not enough to cover inflation.

So, take your pick here.  On non-financial aspects of their policies, the two parties are essentially singing off the same sheet.  Financially, the Liberals have more money on the table, but none of it appears to be heading to institutions.  The NDP has a much smaller package, which will benefit researchers via the granting councils, but not by a whole lot.

Back next Friday with a final summary of the election and higher education.

October 06

Party Platform Analysis: The Liberals

Two quick things at the outset.  First, this will only look at the Liberal’s Monday announcement on student financing.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at their science/innovation policy in conjunction with that of the NDP, which apparently released a similar platform in conditions of complete secrecy last week.  Second, in the interest of full disclosure: I was asked by the Liberals to comment on a draft of their platform a few weeks ago.  I did so, as I would have for any party had they asked.  Judging by what I see in their platform, they took at least some of my comments into account.  So bear that in mind when reading this analysis.

The main plank of the Liberal announcement is that they are planning to increase grants for low income students by $750 million, rising to $900 million by the end of the mandate (which more than doubles the total amount; however,it’s not clear if this increase includes alternative compensation to Quebec… if it does not, add another $200 million).  The Canada Student Grant for Students from Low-Income Families (CSG-LI) will rise in value from $2,000/year to $3,000/year, and the Canada Student Grant for Students from Middle-Income Families (CSG-MI) will rise in value from $800 to $1,800.  The thresholds for both will be increased, meaning more students will receive the low-income grant, and more students with incomes in the $80-100K family income range (precise values not set, but this looks like about what they are going to do) will receive the middle-income grant.  In addition, the Liberals propose raising the repayment threshold (i.e. the level below which borrowers in repayment are not required to make payments on their loans) from just over $20,000 to $25,000.  It’s unclear what this would cost (take-up rate is uncertain), but a good bet would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

So, a $1 billion promise.  Except the Liberals are promising that this will all cost the taxpayer… nothing.  And the reason for that is that the Liberals have decided they will axe the education amount and textbook tax credits (something I, and, others have been suggesting for many years – for instance here).  Now, I actually don’t think this will quite cover the entire spending bill, but it will be within $100 million, or so (basically, it will cover the grants, but not the loan threshold change).

However, what this means is that the plan creates winners and losers.  The value of those federal tax credits for full-time students is $558/year (for part-time students it is $168).  Everybody will lose that amount.  For those who currently receive the CSG-LI, and those who receive CSG-MI and remain in the CSG-MI bracket after the thresholds move, the extra $1,000/year the Liberals are offering means they will be better off by $442 (but they will also benefit by getting the entirety of their $1,000 sooner in the form of grants, rather than delayed in the form of tax relief).  For those in the CSG-MI moving into the CSG-LI category, the net benefit will be $1,642.  For those who currently do not receive grants, but will now become eligible for CSG-MI, the net benefit will be $1,242.

So there are winners.  But there are losers, too.  Families with incomes over $100,000 (or so) will simply be out that $558.  And part-time students, who are ineligible to receive CSGs, will also be out $168.  But this is what happens when you try to do big policy without spending (many) additional dollars.  And there’s always the risk that they will come under political fire for “raising taxes”, which is arguably what cutting tax credits amounts to.

So, full marks for creativity here: these policies would make the funding system somewhat more progressive (in a slightly quirky way).  And full marks for putting out a backgrounder that makes it clear that these moves will create costs for provinces (their co-operation will be needed in order to raise the loan threshold) that need to be mitigated, even though the Liberals are vague on how this will actually work.

But it should be noted that by their own claim (which, as I said above, is probably not quite true), Liberals are choosing not to invest another dime in the sector, which puts them last among political parties in new spending commitments.  As pleasing as the re-arrangement of inefficient subsidies is, wouldn’t it have been better if they had added some funds on top of it?

October 05

Party Platform Analysis: The New Democrats

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.

September 11

Party Platform Analysis: The Greens

So, we’ve been in this ghastly election period for several weeks now, but it’s just starting to get interesting, with parties releasing actual platforms.  I’ll be putting together briefs on each of the parties as they come out, starting today.

Let’s start with the Green Party, which is the first to have released a complete platform.  This platform is slimmer than the sprawling 185-page monstrosity the Party had up on its website for the first weeks of the campaign, and which contained all sorts of fun stuff, like family policy that had been outsourced to Fathers 4 Justice.  It’s slicker, and presumably represents what the party thinks are the most salable bits of their full-range of endorsed policies.

So, here’s what they say they’ll do on post-secondary education.  First, they are going to abolish tuition fees for domestic students, progressively, by 2020.  Second, they will lift the 2% cap on annual increases to the Post-Secondary Student Support Program to First Nations (though why this would be necessary if tuition was eliminated isn’t entirely clear).  Third, they have a plan to cap federal student debt at $10,000 (again, with tuition eliminated from need, not entirely clear this would be necessary).  Fourth, they will abolish interest on student loans (what’s left of them), and increase bursaries (though why you’d need to if tuition was abolished, and loans capped, isn’t clear).  This, it says, will “jump-start the Canadian economy”.  On top of that, the Party says it is unacceptable that youth unemployment is twice the national average (though, in fact, internationally this is on the low side), so it will be spending $1 billion per year to employ students directly through an Environmental Service Corps.

On science policy, there is a lot about “evidence-based decision making” (though this seems to be conspicuously absent in post-secondary policy), and a promise to restore funding to scientific endeavours within the Government of Canada (e.g. at Parks Canada, Health Canada, etc.), but nothing whatsoever with respect to granting councils.

The costing for all of this is somewhat dubious.  The party puts the cost of eliminating domestic tuition at a mere $5 billion, which is about $3 billion short of where it is, and probably closer to $4 billion by the time the plan is supposed to be rolled out (seriously – just multiply the 1 million domestic university students by average tuition, and you get a number bigger than what the Greens seem to be assuming).  But on the other hand, they’ve probably over-budgeted on student debt relief; they have this costed at $2.5 billion in the year of maximum costs (it declines after that), whereas I can’t see how it would cost more than $1 billion even if they didn’t get rid of tuition (briefly: average federal debt of those with debt over $10,000 is about $19,000, and only 46% of the 200,000 or so who graduate each year have federal debt over $10,000, so 92k x $9,000 = $888 million).  So while the Party clearly hasn’t a clue what it’s talking about in terms of costing, at least the errors aren’t all in the same direction.

To its credit, the Party is planning to partially pay for this ambitious agenda by cutting $1.6 billion in education tax credits. But that still leaves a net bill of about $4.5 billion (their numbers – about $7.5 billion in actual fact) in 2019-2020.  And for what?  To make education cheaper for people who already go?  To transfer billions back to the upper middle-class?  To be – as the intro to the policy suggests – more like Germany and Austria, where access rates are actually significantly worse than they are here?

What should we think of such a platform?  Well, even if we ignore the fact that it’s a massive net transfer of wealth to the upper-middle-class (such benefits as the poor would receive from lower tuition would be counteracted by the loss of offsetting subsidies) it’s a pretty poor showing.  Is there really nothing better we could do in higher education with $8 billion than to make it cheaper?  What about using that money to hire more professors?  Do more with IT?  Invest in research?

No, apparently it’s all about cheaper.  And for what?  To be more like Germany and Austria, which have lower access rates than we do?  This is stupid policy made by people who can’t count.  The Greens can and should do better than this.

More as the parties release platform details.

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