Students largely left out of 2012 federal budget

Despite focus on research and innovation, no new student aid initiatives announced in budget 2012

First published in The Sheaf
Written by Emma Godmere

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill shortly before the presentation of the federal budget, March 29.

“The plan’s measures focus on the drivers of growth: innovation, business investment, people’s education and skills that will fuel the new wave of job creation,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters in advance of the budget’s unveiling in the House of Commons on March 29.

But apart from a heavy focus on industry-related research and additional funding for one particular youth employment program, Canadian post-secondary students were largely missing from the Conservatives’ 2012 budget.

“There’s no relief in this budget for students,” said Roxanne Dubois, national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). “We’re facing the highest tuition fees, the highest student debt — and it’s basically gone unnoticed by this budget.”

Research and innovation

The Conservatives instead placed a clear emphasis on innovation and research funding, namely in the form of partnerships between businesses and universities. Among their plans, they intend to dedicate $14 million over two years to double the Industrial Research and Development Internship Program, which currently supports 1,000 graduate students in conducting research at private-sector firms.

The Conservatives also plan to send $6.5 million over three years to McMaster University for a health care research project, and will dedicate $500 million over five years to support modernization of research infrastructure on campuses through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, starting in 2014–15.

[pullquote]The 2012 budget marks the end of the stimulus phase of the government’s economic action plan and thus the end of the Knowledge Infrastructure Program[/pullquote]Paul Davidson, president and CEO of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, called the investments “smart and strategic” and was generally supportive of the research funding proposals outlined by the Conservatives.

“When you look at what the government has been considering over the last several months, where every department was asked to present [cuts] … I think Canadian universities can be quite proud and quite pleased that the government recognizes the central role universities play,” he said.

NDP post-secondary education critic Rathika Sitsabaiesan, meanwhile, raised concerns over the fact that the majority of the research funding outlined in the budget was tied to specific industries.

“It’s all about controlling the research that’s being done in this country, which doesn’t sound right,” she said.

Some money was earmarked for Canada’s three research granting councils, however: reflecting similar numbers mentioned in the 2011 budget, federal funding to the tune of an additional $37 million annually is set to begin in 2012–13. Despite this, the document noted that “granting councils will be pursuing operational efficiencies and reallocation of funding from lower-priority programs to generate savings,” and that the government would “fully reinvest 2012–13 savings in priority areas of the granting councils, particularly in industry-academic partnerships.”

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will see $15 million per year for patient-oriented research; another $15 million per year will be directed to Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for partnerships and innovation; and $7 million per year will be funneled into industry-academic partnership initiatives at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“The funding to the granting councils is targeted and it’s exclusive,” said Sitsabaiesan. “It really doesn’t give the granting councils the autonomy they need to be able to do the research that needs to be done … Instead, they’re forcing the granting councils to fund research initiatives within the private sector and of course also they’re funding only research that’s being tied with private sector corporations.”

The Toronto MP also pointed out that the portion of the budget that dealt with post-secondary education often reaffirmed plans and funding that had been in play since 2006. For example, the 2012 budget marks the end of the stimulus phase of the government’s economic action plan and thus the end of the Knowledge Infrastructure Program, which provided nearly $2 billion over two years for construction projects at university and college campuses across the country. Budget 2012 reported that a total of 515 projects were completed under the program, and while five have yet to be completed, no further federal funding will be provided for those unfinished projects.

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