New post-secondary promises on the federal front this week offer hope for increased spending on the system, but critics say the announcements come as a last ditch Liberal effort to buy votes.
The announced "mini-budget" came as part of Finance Minister Ralph Goodale's second Economic and Fiscal Update, and included new plans to invest more than $2.1 billion over five years to improve student financial assistance and increase access for lower-income Canadians.
Plans also include $1 billion for the Post-Secondary Education Innovation Fund allocated in 2005-06, More than $2.1 million over the next five years in research funding and almost $200 million over the same period to create up to 3,500 internships and up to 500 scholarships for natural health sciences and engineering graduates.
The announcement covered a range of fiscal issues, and promised both business and personal tax cuts in addition to post-secondary funding increases.
The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations is pleased with the announcements, noting CASA has been lobbying for an expansion of the low-income grant and a review of Canada's financial aid system for years.
"There is however, more work to be done," said CASA National Director Phillippe Ouellette. "These announcements pave the way for what we believe is the next logical step in education reform: An open, national dialogue between Canada's provincial and federal governments to develop a dedicated transfer for post-secondary education."
University of Calgary Students' Union President Bryan West, who is currently in Ottawa for CASA's national lobby conference, said the mini-budget was welcome news, even though a looming federal election could derail any concrete plans.
"CASA has been advocating for a permanent transfer payment for PSE for a number of years and that's something we didn't see with this announcement," said West. He noted the major political parties are now discussing the transfer payment and said having post-secondary issues discussed can't be a bad thing going into an election.
"With the election looming, it's actually like everyone wants to talk to us," said West. "It was a pretty big announcement and fortunate we were on the hill when it happened. Although, other than some of the tax measures, nothing's going to be implemented before the government folds."
U of C political science professor Dr. Lisa Young believes the mini-budget announcements amount to little more than a "hill of beans."
"It's an election platform," said Young. "This is what the liberal party is running on in the next election. Nobody should count on too much of it."
Young stressed the likelihood of post-secondary education being a prominent campaign issue depends entirely on how much electoral support the political parties perceive it holds. She said it is unlikely any actual funding increases will be pushed through before parliament dissolves, and that outcomes will depend on the balance of power in the next House of Commons.
"It's all entirely up in the air," said Young.