There is a strain of thinking in higher education that goes something like this: “everything bad in higher education funding is the fault of neo-liberals [this being a general term of abuse rather than an actual ideological signifier]. Once neo-liberals are out of office, we can get back to the good old days, and not worry about austerity”.
It seems to me that the evidence for this point-of-view is pretty thin. Near as I can tell, neither of the main opposition parties give two hoots about higher education. Neither of them has released any policy statements around higher education in the past year. Trudeau occasionally makes a speech about how important it is that attainment rates hit 70% (a demographically questionable promise, which I examined here, but has yet to utter a word about how he will achieve this.
Then there’s the fact that neither party’s post-secondary critic actually seems to care very much about post-secondary education. For yuks, I looked at the Hansard record for the New Democrats’ Dan Harris (Scarborough Southwest) and the Liberals’ Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands) over the past 14 months. I could have gone back a bit further, I suppose, but that’s about the point at which I got bored with the exercise. It was dispiriting, to say the least.
Dan Harris has spoken four times on the subject of post-secondary education in the House in the last 14 months. Two of these were on the same day, and on the same subject (the Canada Student Loans Program’s vehicle cost exemption rules), back in April 2014. Since then, he has spoken once to support the striking University of Toronto teaching assistants, and once to castigate the Tories for not doing more to bring international students into the country at a faster pace. Ted Hsu has spoken a couple of times on the subject of Science & Technology funding, generally, and specifically on the subject of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which received funding in the last budget. But on the subject of post-secondary education, I could find nothing at all.
It’s not that either man is silent in the House. Both men – properly – devote much of their time to local matters. But they speak widely on other issues, as well. Harris has risen to talk about Bill C-51, childcare, government advertising policy, and banking. Ted Hsu has spent much of his Commons time chastising the government on the issue of the National Household Survey, and calling for a reinstatement of the long-form census. What all of these things have in common is that they have nothing to do with post-secondary education.
So, post-secondary critics don’t talk about post-secondary education. Presumably that’s partly a matter of personal choice and interest. But partly, as well, it’s a reflection of how their parties see post-secondary education as a vote-winner. If they thought there were votes to be had by speaking on this subject, they’d be talking about it. But they don’t, so they aren’t.
And it’s not just the votes – there simply isn’t much money available to promise anything. Both opposition parties having essentially forsworn significant tax increases, dollars for new priorities are scarce. The Liberals have more or less blown whatever fiscal room their program might have had on a revision of child benefits; the New Democrats have made a costly promise with respect to childcare. Economic growth is slow, and stock markets are flat, which means there will be no big windfalls to fund much by way of expansion. New funds for PSE are going to have to come from cuts elsewhere – never a pleasant thought for a government.
None of this means that a New Democrat or Liberal government (or, horror of horrors, a coalition government) will sit pat on higher ed. After all, the Tories never promise much on higher education, and yet always manage to find something for the sector each year, even if it’s not entirely adequate, and/or is wrong-headed.
What this means is that there may not be as much of a change in substance and tone as some imagine. And this isn’t because “all parties are the same”; rather, it’s that they’re all reacting to the same external stimuli. Simply put, higher education has lost its place in the policy spotlight, and there are few rewards for spending political capital on it.