I’m feeling low on creativity today, so I’m going to go to that old stand-by: telling war stories. And specifically, I’m going to go back and trace the rise of tax credits in the Canadian higher education system and what that tells us about policy-making in Canada.
Tax benefits for education go back to the late 1950s. There was pressure at the time to create a “national system of scholarships”, but this clearly was going to cause problems in Quebec. But Prime Minister Diefenbaker, on the advice of Ted Rogers and with the assistance of Brian Mulroney, found a way around this which was acceptable to Quebec: namely, by making tuition fees tax deductible. Lesson #1: the federal government in part views tax expenditures as a way to get around troublesome provinces.
These tax deductions for tuition and a monthly “education amount” were turned into tax credits in a general tax reform introduced in 1988 by then-Finance Minister Michael Wilson (which is still arguably the greatest thing any Conservative finance minister has done in my lifetime). The tuition credit did not include ancillary fees and the monthly amount was $60/month. And there it stayed until 1996.
Budget 1996 was not a happy time in Canadian history. As far as most people were concerned, we were in year 6 of a recession (a real one, where unemployment hit double digits and a third of the island of Montreal was on social assistance/EI, not like the past few years). The stomach-churning Quebec referendum night was less than four months in the past. The country was broke, and the logic of Paul Martin’s epoch-defining 1995 Budget meant that fiscal room for anything new was just about zero. Yet the government wanted to show that the federal government could still be relevant, particularly around youth unemployment, which was a concern at the time. So what did they do?
They upped the education tax credit to $80/month.
I know that sounds meagre. Trust me, in the context of February 1996, this was a moderately big deal. But it was the 1959 logic at work again. Need to show the feds can do something about an issue that matters to Canadians but is mostly in provincial control? Use the tax system!
Then in December 1996, the Finance Department’s pre-budget polling (which in those days was always, always, always done by Earnscliffe) numbers came in and they showed – totally unexpectedly – that education was suddenly the number two issue for Canadian voters. Terrie O’Leary, Paul Martin’s formidable chief of staff, immediately went to the office of Don Drummond (now Chief Economist at TD, then the ADM at Finance in charge of the budget). The conversation, the best I can reconstruct it from a couple of different sources, went like this:
O’Leary: I want something on education in the budget.
Drummond: (Acutely aware that the budget date was only about ten weeks away and it’s desperately late to start screwing around with it at this point): Not unless you want a replay of the Scientific Tax Credits fiasco.
O’Leary: <A string of choice expletives to the general effect of “don’t talk back to me”>.
Well, of course Drummond needn’t have worried because when it doubt: tax credits! The vehicle was already there, so they just juiced it. The $80/month education amount jumped in stages to $200/month, a smaller credit was added from part-time students, and the definition of tuition tax credits was expanded to include ancillary fees. Bonus: unlike the changes to Canada Student Loans and the Millennium Scholarships which were announced in the following year’s budget, there was no tedious negotiations with provinces. Lesson #2: tax credits are sometimes a tool of choice because they’re easy and quick to implement.
Then of course, the economy improved and Paul Martin started getting generous. In the fall 2000 mini-budget which preceded that year’s election (the Stockwell Day election, in case you’ve erased that period from your memory), he doubled the value of the education amount to $400/month for full time students and $120/month for part-timers. Why? Well, in the preceding election, the Liberals had promised that any surplus money (and we started running surpluses in 1998), would go 50% to new programs and 50% to “debt reduction and tax cuts” (relative proportions not specified). It finally occurred to the Liberals that under this regime tax credits were gold, because depending on one’s choice of definition, tax credits could be counted as an expenditure or as a tax cut. And yes, they counted these as both, to suit the occasion. Lesson #3: tax credits are attractive because the communications around them are flexible.
That was more or less the high point of education tax credits in Canada. After that, they started to gradually fall out of favour. Quebec (2012) and Ontario (2016) have both abolished their credits, and Budget 2016 saw the feds abandon them in favour of higher grants. I suspect they will disappear from the provincial level over the coming decade.
But the point I want you to take here is not that government was misguided about tax credits back then and is smarter now. Apart from a couple of zealots in the Finance Department who prattle on about tax treatment of human capital, no one in the 1990s genuinely thought that tax credits were a particularly good tool to get money to students. What they had over other more direct means of support was convenience, simplicity, and the ability to be implemented completely independently of what a bunch of tiresome provinces think. In the late 1990s – the High Era of Competitive Federalism – that stuff mattered a lot more than it does today. If those conditions ever return, it would be easy enough to see how tax credits as a funding mechanism could return, too.