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Who Speaks to Student Voters?

Party platforms range from elaborate theses to nearly blank slates.

Magda Konieczna 24 Jun
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For once, the pollsters at Ipsos-Reid can't tell us who our next prime minister is going to be. A Liberal party struggling with its history is in a close battle with the newly united right, so we'll actually be watching the numbers on Election Day with some excitement.

The race has created an all-too-rare opportunity to discuss many issues in depth. Education, however, has once again been overshadowed by health care.

Student groups, as always, have been working to force education onto the election agenda. Canadian Federation of Students national chairperson Ian Boyko has told the media "this federal election can be pivotal in either reversing or exacerbating" issues of rising tuition and student debt. The CFS site has a special Vote Education section examining the federal issues.

Young ignore and are ignored

In a survey of more than 600 young people, VoteSmart, an online education tool for young voters, found that 96 percent of respondents said candidates' views on post-secondary education would be very important or somewhat important in their decision on election day. At the same time, voter turnout among youth is disturbingly low - while more than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the last federal election, only 25 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted.

Education is far back on the list of priorities for the voting public in general - an Ipsos-Reid study released May 21 suggested that 30 percent of Canadians believed health care would be the biggest issue this federal election, while only six percent named education as the key issue.

It's true that education does fall under provincial jurisdiction, yet there are a few key areas in which the federal government can have significant impact, so it is important to note the differences between party platforms.

Although some parties offer only general positions on education in their platforms, each has made some commitments. For those concerned about their positions, here's a summary of positions on the key issues.

Education funds fit to be tied

Federal transfers to the provinces are delivered in one lump sum, known as the Canada Health and Social Transfer. Both the NDP and the Liberals have responded to calls by student groups to separate post-secondary education funds from the rest of the transfer money.

The NDP platform advocates a new role for the federal government in post-secondary education, and promises a dedicated federal transfer for post-secondary education. Coupled with this would be a guarantee on basic standards of service. Like the Canada Health Act, it would create a set of enforceable standards across the country.

Although the Liberal platform makes no mention of post-secondary education, in a youth-oriented forum on CBC Paul Martin promised a dedicated transfer to post-secondary education that would eventually rise to between $7 and 8 billion. This promise, however, has not been confirmed, despite an open letter to Paul Martin from the Canadian Federation of Students requesting confirmation.

The Conservatives make no mention of a dedicated transfer, or of increasing transfer funds for post-secondary education.

Student debt has tripled

The issue of student has become very serious. In 1993, average student debt was just over $8,000; in 2004, it's almost $25,000, according to a Statistics Canada report.

The NDP's Jack Layton has committed to $5.7 billion of federal funding over five years to lower tuition and decrease student debt. The NDP has also committed to making Canada Student Loans interest-free, and to building more affordable housing. Funds saved by eliminating the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, introduced by the Liberals in 1998 to improve accessibility to post-secondary education, would be used to create more needs-based bursaries.

On the CBC's youth-oriented election forum, the Liberals proposed to extend new grants for students from low-income families beyond the first year of studies. As with the dedicated post-secondary transfer, however, this promise is not in the platform and has not been confirmed.

The Conservatives propose to deal with the issue of student debt by introducing income-contingent repayment of loans. This idea, implemented in Australia, means that size of monthly payments depends on the person's income after graduation. Boyko says this move would allow drastic increases in tuition and would lead to lifelong repayment of loans.

Tuition hot, policies not

The student issue discussed most is tuition. And it's no surprise - average tuition has almost doubled in the last decade, to $4,025 in 2003-04 from $2,023 in 1993-94. With no clear plan for tuition - fee hikes have been huge in B.C. while the Ontario Liberals have frozen tuition - students are left wondering just what is to come.

The NDP says it will work with provinces and territories to freeze tuition at 10 percent below its current levels by increasing federal funding for post-secondary education. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have made any statements about how they would deal with rising tuition.

Research in whose hands?

The parties have different stands on how to fund research. The NDP advocates greater funding to councils that distribute research funds to prevent privatization of research. The Liberals and Conservatives, conversely, support the involvement of the private sector in research - the Liberals through supporting technology transfer from universities, and the Conservatives by granting tax credits.

Magda Konieczna is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalism student.  [Tyee]

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