Passing through Halifax airport on Thursday, I realised that I have been remiss in not yet having covered the party platforms for tomorrow’s provincial election. So, I set about reading the party platforms and then immediately wished I hadn’t because they’re basically a tidy encapsulation of most of what’s wrong with higher education policy in Canada.
Let’s start with the ruling Liberals. Now, they haven’t done badly by PSE in government, especially in their last budget, which saw the sector get a 4% boost in real terms. The only thing you can fault them for – and it’s a reasonably big fault – is that when they cut the $50 million Graduate Tax Rebate, they chose not to reinvest any of it either in students or in post-secondary more generally.
The Liberal platform promises no new money for institutions. It does however, have an incredible grab-bag of micro-promises, all of which cost in the $1-4 million range, which is pretty small even for Nova Scotia (apparently they have learned the lesson that media coverage is proportional to the number of announcements, not the dollar value of those announcements). They want to add an “Innovation Sandbox” to the seven that already exist, create a new provincial research agency, increase subsidies to hire master’s and doctoral graduates (as well as aboriginal, minority and disabled Nova Scotians) top up MITACS funding, eliminate tuition for apprentices when they leave work to complete technical training, expand opportunities for women and minorities in apprenticeships, increasing provincial student loans to $200/week and expanding loan forgiveness eligibility by changing the eligibility criteria from four years to graduation to five years. Total annual cost of all that, when fully phased-in: about $13.5 million, with about three-quarters of that going to students one way or another.
Running neck and neck with the Liberals are the Progressive Conservatives, who have a much more limited set of pledges around post-secondary education. Just three, in fact. First, “force universities to focus on innovation and job creation” (are they not doing this already? What more are they supposed to do?); Second, roll tuition back to the Canadian average (about $900 per student); and third, reinstate the Graduate Tax Rebate that the Liberals axed. The costing on these is tragic/hilarious. Apparently neither of the first two promises will cost a cent – universities will have to eat the $30 million or so cost of the tuition pledge and whatever the hell it costs to meet this fantasy pledge about innovation and job creation. And the graduate tax rebate? $25 million – or only about half as generous as the program it’s meant to replace. So, then, that’s a $55 million in net benefit to students, a real cut of $30 million plus to institutions.
Finally, we have the NDP platform. The Dexter government pretty much made an unmitigated hash of the post-secondary file: cuts to institutional budgets, commissioning a visionary report on the future of the University System in the province and then more or less ignoring the results, etc. But they have a fresh new set of proposals they’d like you to believe in. It’s a three-parter: first, requiring PSE institutions to have policies on sexual violence; second, reduce tuition fees by 10% over four years and third, eliminate tuition at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) altogether, a policy which faithful readers know I think makes a lot of sense). Unlike the Tories, they seem to have more or less costed this correctly. $38 million a year at full phase-in for the cut to university fees is a bit low because it seems to be based on 2014-15 fee income, but if you assume international students are exempted it will work just fine. $36 million to get rid of fees at NSCC is about dead on, too. The half-million for institutions to adopt policies about sexual assault is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll let that one go. Total: $74.5 million, of which $74 million goes to students.
For those keeping count, that makes for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $140 million in total promises to students, and as near as $0 as makes no odds to universities and colleges (or negative $30 million, depending on how you count the Tory pledge). Now, it’s not that any of these parties are actually going to freeze funding for four years. More likely, you’ll see post-secondary spending rise more or less in line with nominal GDP growth, or a bit slower. But that, as we all know, does not cover increases in running costs, which – since it’s a labour-intensive operation, naturally run consistently above inflation.
So whatever way this goes, we’re talking cuts at institutions to (in part) make PSE cheaper for students.
You can see how this will play out. Universities, faced with cuts, will ask to raise fees. Politicians will grandstand and say: “Look at all the cuts you’re making. Why should students pay more and receive less? ”. Institutional heads will then have to decide whether to tear their hair out in frustration or just go and recruit a boatload more international students to make up the difference. No prizes for seeing how this will go.
This is not just a Nova Scotia phenomenon, of course. More or less every provincial government has been doing this “feed-the-students, starve-the-institutions” for the last six years. There’s no earthly rationale for this approach other than vote-buying. It’s short-sighted, and needs to stop.
As for which party has the best policies? Well, scratch the Tories. I like the vision in the free community college pledge in the NDP platform, but a) distrust the execution because of the Dexter government’s record and b) I think at some point, we have to say no to vote-buying via giveaways to students. So go with the Liberals. Yeah, their platform is small, incremental and uninspiring. But it’s the only one restrained enough to think there might be some money left over for investments in quality higher education.