By Peter Shyba
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff made headlines March 28 when he announced the proposed Canadian Learning Passport, a Liberal platform piece that promises $4,000-$6,000 to potential post-secondary students. This part of the Liberal platform has been widely publicized by Ignatieff in the lead-up to the May 2 election.
The Liberal Party motto for this initiative, “if you get the grades, you get to go,” is a component of their plan to woo middle-class voters, who have seen the price of post-secondary education skyrocket due to tuition hikes. According to Statistics Canada, tuition rates have increased an average of 4.4 per cent every year over the past decade.
The Liberals plan to pay for the program by retracting planned tax cuts to corporations, about $1 billion a year.
“This is a real revolution in learning and training in Canada and that will give us the means of becoming the most competitive society in the world,” Ignatieff announced at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario.
“It has definitely gotten harder [to pay for education] and the last thing we want to see is an American-style education system,” commented McGill Liberal club president Kathleen Klein.
University of Calgary Liberal Association president Natalie Hilbrecht agreed.
“If you look at people without scholarships or parental support, they have to work so hard and depend on student loans,” she said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous the mountain of debt some people graduate under.”
According to the Globe and Mail, tuition reached an average of $5,138 in Canada last year and is growing at twice the rate of inflation.
Stephen Randall, Liberal candidate for Calgary Centre-North, described the Passport as a program that “provides for any student leaving high school and planning on going to post-secondary institution with $1,000 up to a maximum of $4,000. For low-income students, this would increase to $1,500 a year up to a maximum of $6,000.”
The payments would be deposited into existing registered education savings plans and cancelled should a student decide on something other than post-secondary after high school.
Conservatives were quick to point out that an education finance program already exists in the form of a tax break. The current initiative comes in the form of two tax breaks — an education tax credit for $480 and a textbook tax credit for roughly $78. The Liberals would replace these tax breaks with their Passport program.
Conservative candidate for Calgary Centre-North Michelle Rempel highlighted initiatives the Conservative government has already undertaken since 2006.
“Some of the measures in the updated economic action plan were increased income thresholds for part-time loans and grants, raising the in-study period for full-time students and extending the tuition tax credit to cover all occupational, trade and examination fees.”
Klein said the difference between these tax credits and the Learning Passport is the tax credits are an “after the fact” process, whereas the Liberal’s proposal is going to be all up front.
“I definitely think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Students’ Union vice-president external Hardave Birk. “We need to recognize that up-front funding in the forms of grants and bursaries is always a great incentive to get students into school.”
Birk said that while the proposal still has problems, it’s impressive to see a party take education so seriously.
U of C Conservative Party Campus Association president Peter Csillag saw the Learning Passport as only a small portion of the party’s platform.
“What students need to look at between the two parties is which of these governments can I trust to make sure that there is a strong, stable economy in which I can land myself a job in after I graduate,” Csillag said. ” ‘If you get the grades, you get to go’ is fine, but will you get a job after your education?”
At a speech in Kitchener, Ontario, NDP leader Jack Layton framed the issue of increasing tuition prices in another way, saying that the proposal does nothing to stop the issue of tuition increases.
“If tuition goes up by $1,000 as you are receiving the $1,000, you are no further ahead,” said Layton.
Randall agreed more needs to be done.
“We’re moving in the right direction and for the average student, yes it’s a help, but its not going to make an awful lot of difference in their lives,” Randall said. “The message is important, we want people to get a post-secondary education. In a knowledge society, without that post-secondary education, we’re not going to be competitive.”