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Universities miss mark on funding

1052 words
7 September 2005
The Toronto Star
Copyright (c) 2005 The Toronto Star

Ottawa gets free ride while university presidents shake wrong money tree, says Christian Leuprecht

According to Canada's Constitution, education is an area of provincial jurisdiction. But you'd be hard-pressed to tell if you look at the way the country's university presidents have been acting.

Funding for post-secondary education topped the agenda at this year's meeting of provincial premiers last month in Alberta.

Ahead of the premier's meeting, the Prime Minister struck pre-emptively. In a covert operation, he invited Canada's university presidents to a hotel near his cottage. Paul Martin had two messages for them:

He doesn't like all the noise about private money dictating university research and he wants them to do something about it since the federal government has poured plenty of public money into research in recent years.

Health care was a one-off deal on which he had to cave because of public pressure. The federal government is pouring money into health care - but it has no good idea where it's going.

If the presidents are thinking they'll get a deal akin to that struck on health care, they're barking up the wrong tree.

In other words, Ottawa doesn't want either the presidents or the provinces telling it what to do with its money tree: The government will do whatever it might want to do on its schedule and on its terms.

If that's all the presidents got out of their meeting, one has to wonder why they bothered to show. By showing up, the presidents not only undermined their own agenda, they also undermined the federation, thereby playing right into Liberal hands.

In 1995, the same man who has yet to make good on his 2004 campaign pledge to transfer an additional $8 billion to the provinces for post-secondary education, unilaterally slashed the fiscal transfers to the provinces that pay for education and social services, including health.

By starving the provinces, Ottawa has effectively been able to force the provinces' hands. Since 1995, health care has eclipsed all other provincial funding priorities.

While provincial governments have been preoccupied with dousing the health-care flames, there has been a creeping expansion of the federal government into areas of provincial jurisdiction.

The top three agenda items during the last federal election are, technically, all matters of provincial jurisdiction: health care, education, and day care. While provinces have closely guarded their turf in primary and secondary education, in post-secondary education the federal role in funding national research priorities has long been acknowledge by the provinces.

Then came the Canada Research Chairs (an initiative that pays universities directly for the salaries and research costs of certain professors).

A couple of years ago, the federal government started funding the indirect costs of research, that is, the administrative and other costs universities incur as a result of direct research funding.

That money could have just been transferred to the provinces with instructions it be spent on post-secondary education. Martin has been quick to dismiss Premier Jean Charest's call for $4 billion in new transfers for post-secondary education - even though that's a modest half of what Martin pledged for that purpose during the last federal campaign.

That dismissal coincides with new estimates that the federal surplus is again ballooning far beyond original estimates.

A decade ago, when there was even a hint of money growing on trees, the University of Toronto's then-president Rob Prichard could be counted on to be all over the media the following day with suggestions about how that money might best be spent on post-secondary education.

This time around, by contrast, not an inkling of leadership was to be heard from the country's largest university - or from any other university president, for that matter.

The explanation for this curious silence is to be sought among universities' trustees.

Universities - especially the country's large research institutions - have become obsessed with chasing medical, science, and engineering funds.

Recent choices in presidents in Ontario, for instance, reflect this quest: They come from the medical sciences, the natural sciences, engineering ... and even the United States.

What do they have in common? An impoverished understanding of federal politics. As a result, they don't see the forest for the trees.

According to Statistics Canada, the provinces pay 43 per cent of the cost of post-secondary education (some through federal transfers), the federal government 12 per cent, and students 20 per cent.

That leaves 25 per cent for other sources, such as endowments, donations, and private-sector funding.

In other words, governments put more than twice as much money into post-secondary education as the private sector. U of T had to prostitute itself for half a decade to build up an endowment of a measly $1 billion.

When even a fraction of the $8 billion federal surplus might be had, when the premier of Quebec asks for $4 billion from Ottawa for post-secondary education, when the premiers meet with post-secondary education as their top agenda item, university presidents are nowhere to be seen.

Yet, when Martin offers them nothing but asks them to jump, they concertedly ask how high.

Rather than playing into Liberal hands and bolstering Martin's effort to undermine provincial powers at every possible turn, university presidents who genuinely have the well-being of Canada's post-secondary system at heart should know who their real friends are.

While the Liberals sit on their hands and watch the vertical imbalance between federal and provincial revenue capacities and expenditure pressures grow, most provinces - despite growing debt pressures - have started to put money back into their post-secondary sectors.

All the while, university presidents are showing up for soccer practice with in-line skates and hockey sticks.

It's not (entirely) the players' fault that the team managers are hiring road-hockey players to contend a World Cup soccer match.

But until they at least show up with the right equipment, there's not even a glimmer of hope that they might end up winning the cup.

Christian Leuprecht is a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University.

Higher Education

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