HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

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.

This entry was posted in History Lesson, Politics, Student Aid and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Twenty Years Ago Sunday

  1. Alex,
    We worked with Millennium Scholarship and it was a great organization doing important work. It’s great to highlight that legacy.

  2. Rico Natale says:

    Alex, beside your wife, there were many great people at the foundation. Melissa Moi, Joey Berger, Stéphane LeBlanc, Vesna Antwan, Claudette Marchand, Thomas Barbieri and Andrew Parkin are names that come to mind. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many. Although the money that was awarded through that program was largely replaced through other programs, the research program is still sorely missed.

    Thanks for the memory.

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