Direct university funding a tough sell: prof

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's endorsement of direct funding for universities last week may be difficult to deliver on, says Dal prof Jennifer Smith.

The provinces might see Michael Ignatieff's new university funding proposal as intrusive, one of two reasons Dal prof Jennifer Smith says the policy would be a tough sell. Photo: Adam Miller

A Dalhousie University professor says direct federal funding for Canada's post-secondary schools, though technically a sound policy, could prove politically dangerous for Michael Ignatieff.

The Liberal leader has repeatedly voiced his support for the idea during his week-long cross-country campus tour, which wrapped up Monday at the University of Ottawa.

While conditional or targeted funding is normally quite acceptable, getting involved in education - considered a provincial jurisdiction - could bring many headaches for an Ignatieff government, said Jennifer Smith, a professor with Dalhousie's Department of Political Science.

"The Quebec government is going to be really in an uproar because they will see this kind of move as an intrusion on the sovereignty of Quebec, on exclusive provincial jurisdiction," Smith said.

"There's always those extra political overtones in relation to that province, which is highly sensitive to this kind of action."

All provincial governments, Quebec included, tend to be wary of taking federal money with strings attached, she said. They prefer being able to allocate it according to their unique priorities, something conditional transfers - such as a direct post-secondary education fund - don't allow them to do.

"Some (provinces) may happily take the dollars for post-secondary, but others might be really irked because it interferes totally with how they've been trying to plan and allocate resources."

These are two reasons Ignatieff may hesitate before giving the idea his full backing, Smith said.

The Liberal leader first broached the topic speaking at Dalhousie University last week, cautiously musing on a per-student basis for funding.

When asked about that funding model a few days later at the University of Manitoba, Ignatieff dismissed it.

"You're taking me further than I think the Liberal party is prepared to go ... We respect provincial jurisdictions," he told Maclean's magazine, adding that it was a still question worth exploring.

A direct post-secondary transfer is nothing new, said Smith. Something similar existed before the Chretien government lumped various federal funds together in the mid-1990s, creating the Canada Health and Social Transfer.

This fund was replaced in 2004 by the Canada Social Transfer, which now channels almost $11-billion to the provinces, covering the costs of post-secondary education, social assistance and programs such as childcare.

Nova Scotia got about $302-million through this transfer in the current fiscal year.

"If he wants to take the post-secondary element of that out, I would be surprised that he wouldn't face some opposition from the provinces, because it would give them less freedom to maneuver," she said.

But for students, Ignatieff's idea could be a positive first step.

"I think it's a first concrete step towards fully funded post-secondary education institutions," said David Etherington, president of the King's Student Union.

Etherington, whose question at the Dalhousie event first brought out Ignatieff's modest proposal, said the provinces have done such a poor job handling post-secondary education to warrant the federal government stepping in again.

"You've seen tuition just skyrocket. And I don't think it's a coincidence that tuition skyrocketed at the same time the federal government got rid of these dedicated transfers for post-secondary education," he said.

"Canada is a country just like any other country and we need to be producing the best, the brightest, the smartest. And we need to have the best, the brightest, the smartest graduating without $30,000 of debt."

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