Budget holds promise for students

University staff and student leaders across the country are mostly celebrating after the release of the federal budget, which included an additional $800 million in funding for post-secondary education.

The $800 million is part of a $3.2 billion government-spending package of investments to create a “knowledge advantage,” announced Tues., March 20. The package includes increased funding to graduate programs, elimination of limits on education savings plans, millions in research money and support for international students. According to the budget, the investments aim to “create the best-educated, most-skilled and most flexible labour force in the world.”

“To be fair, I am quite pleased with this,” said University of Calgary president Dr. Harvey Weingarten, after noting his “ideal budget” would have included more than the $15 million allotted for indirect research costs, such as facilities maintenance and information management.

The allocation of the $800 million is on a per capita basis, explained Weingarten, meaning Alberta will get about 10 per cent, with the U of C getting about $17.6 million. The cash will be used in the university’s priority areas like increasing spaces, improving quality of teaching and deferred maintenance, he said.

Despite Tuesday’s budget announcement, schools will not see the cash until the 2008/09 academic year, creating a difficult delay for cash-strapped institutions that need money now, according to Canadian Alliance of Student Associations national director Phillippe Ouellette.

“The $800 million is only going to be over a year from now because they have to negotiate with the provinces, but what have they been doing all year?” asked Ouellette.

Ouellette also noted the total of $3.2 billion comes shy of the $4 billion student groups were requesting to return funding to 1990s levels.

U of C Students’ Union vice-president external Julie Labonte said she is pleased to see the new funding, but is worried that few restrictions on the money at this time means it might not get spent in the right places.

“It’s not dedicated,” said Labonte. “There need to be measures in place to make sure this money goes to post-secondary education.”

Despite his criticisms, Ouellette said he was pleasantly surprised with the budget.

“Part of my surprise with this budget is I didn’t think [the federal government] was going to do anything,” said Ouellette. “They haven’t been that aggressive or even that active on post-secondary education.”

Weingarten said the priority given to education in the budget reflects renewed government focuses on PSE at both the federal and provincial levels.

“We’ve let [the focus on PSE] slip too far,” noted Weingarten. “When you know 70 to 80 per cent of jobs created require post-secondary education, you have to invest in that. We know it’s important and we know we’re not where we should be.”

In addition to the $800 million, Weingarten was also pleased to see the budget contained $15 million for Canada’s School of Sustainable Energy. The CSSE is a coalition between the universities of Calgary, Alberta and Lethbridge, of which the U of C-based Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy is a part.

“Realistically, about half of that $15 million will come to the U of C,” said Weingarten, noting the funds will be spent on increasing ISEEE research opportunities.

The ISEEE funding was part of a larger $105 million commitment to fund seven centres of excellence in commercialization and research across Canada. Despite the new cash, Weingarten said the planned ISEEE building still needs capital funding, which he hopes will be announced in the provincial budget.

The $283 million multi-disciplinary ISEEE building is planned for construction on 32nd ave NW, across from the current ICT building. When it is finished, the 60,000-square-metre building will house an additional 1,000 students and 100 faculty.

Both Labonte and Ouellette also commended the federal government’s promise to review the Canadian Federal Loan system, a move student groups have demanded for years to replace what they say is an outdated and difficult-to-navigate system.

Given the shaky minority government, all said that they hoped the budget would pass so students could begin to benefit.

“If this goes through there will be a lot of students who are positively affected,” said Labonte.

In case you don’t have time to read the entire 478-page document yourself, here’s what the budget means for students:
– An additional $800 million for PSE in the Canada Social Transfer beginning in 2008/09, which will grow by three per cent per year. Includes approximately $17.6 million for the U of C.
– $35 million over two years and $27 million per year thereafter to support graduate students through the Canada Graduate Scholarships.
– $85 million per year for granting councils, plus an additional $15 million to support indirect costs of research associated with these grants such as facilities maintenance and knowledge management.
– $34 million to aid Canadian-educated foreign students to remain in Canada as permanent residents.
– $2 million to attract international students to Canada.
– Changes to Registered Ed- ucation Savings Plans to eliminate the $4,000 limit on annual contributions and increase the lifetime contribution limit from $42,000 to $50,000.
– A review of the Canada Student Loans Program with results announced in budget 2008.
– $15 million for Canada’s School of Sustainable Energy, a coalition between the universities of Calgary, Lethbridge and Edmonton, including the U of C Institute for Sustainable Energy Environment and Economy.

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