Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to the bill that was brought forward by my colleague, my friend from Halifax West. I want to commend him. He has a particular interest in this. He has long been interested in post-secondary education and has been a champion of it. He now has one daughter who is going through it at great expense. He has more on the way, so he might have a particular interest.
The bill has to do with Canada's most needy. I do want to associate myself with some of the comments made by the previous speaker from the NDP about the process. However, I would be remiss if I did not indicate that the chair of our committee, who is a Conservative, has been a very fair minded chair and I think has run his meetings better than Canadians might have heard some other committees being run, so I commend him for that.
The biggest challenge we face domestically, I believe, is the issue of productivity. When we talk about productivity, we have to talk about human resources and human capital, as my colleague from Halifax West spoke of earlier. We have to talk about education.
Most Canadians would say that if we are talking about productivity in Canada, we should talk about education, but surprisingly, the government did not in the Speech from the Throne. I would like to just read the entire part of the Speech from the Throne that dealt with education. This is quite staggering. It says: “--families worry about the rising costs of higher education”. That is it. There is no answer and no further comment.
That is hardly startling information. Bill C-284 would be a very effective way to deal with that. It would be a very good start for helping Canadians who need help the most.
The Canada access grants, a Liberal initiative, provide financial assistance to low income persons and persons with disabilities who were traditionally shut out and very underrepresented in university, community college and all post-secondary institutions.
In supporting the bill, Amanda Aziz, from the Canadian Federation of Students, who is a very effective advocate for post-secondary education, said, “The research is clear: low-income students are under-represented in Canada’s universities”.
One would hardly think we could argue with that. All the evidence indicates that low income persons, persons with disabilities and aboriginal Canadians are those who do not get to take part in the richness of Canada because they do not have the opportunity to access education.
Canada access grants is a great program. The problem is that it only extends to one year. Of course, this piece of legislation would have extended those grants to all four years. Persistence, that being the ability of students once they are in university to stay in university, is a big issue for low income Canadians. The bill would have helped that immeasurably.
It is not that new. In 2005, in the economic update of the previous Liberal government, it was in a piece of legislation that came before the House: $550 million over five years to provide grants for post-secondary education to an additional 55,000 students from low income families. It went further, back in November 2005: $2.2 billion over five years to help make post-secondary education more affordable for low income and middle income Canadians.
There was $210 million to encourage graduate studies, $150 million specifically for Canadians to study abroad, $1 billion for a post-secondary education innovation fund, $3.5 billion for increasing workplace and employer led training, and $65 million over five years to improve labour market information available to Canadians.
This is not the first time we have had the opportunity to actually do something for Canadians who need it the most. The response of the government was to refuse a royal recommendation to the bill and to not want to do anything about it. That is a shame.
Instead, what we see from the government is tax changes, tinkering with the tax system. I would like to quote the Canadian Federation of Students again who say:
The net benefit for a student enrolled full-time for eight months is expected to be a mere $80, less than the cost of one textbook per academic year.
That is not much. George Soule, the national chairperson in 2006 of CFS, said, “Tinkering around the edges of the tax system is not going to increase access to college and university”.
That is really what we need to do in Canada. We have to find a way so that the entire nation can benefit economically, but from a social justice point of view in order to provide an opportunity for Canadians so they can maximize their human resources potential. Surely that is an admirable goal that we would all support.
If the government is not going to allow Bill C-284, in its original form, to be adopted, let me at least make a couple of recommendations tied in with that which would make sense.
Number one, the Coalition for Student Loan Fairness had an active summer. Julian Benedict was heard quite often talking about the problems. There was an article today in the Globe and Mail that talked about the allegedly heavy-handed tactics of the Canada student loan program harassing students.
The Coalition for Student Loan Fairness put out eight recommendations this summer. I think some of those recommendations are entirely reasonable. I would certainly associate myself with many of them. I think many Liberals would support a large number of these recommendations.
Student debt has unquestionably risen in the last 15 to 20 years. It is out of control for many Canadians. Even though the federal government introduced programs like the millennium scholarship, Canada access grants, learning bonds and a whole host of other initiatives for students, student debt has risen.
Now that we are in a time of surplus, a time of great wealth, we should be looking to assist students. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Canadian students are coming out of university with huge debts and facing an inability to deal with that debt and, at the same time, are trying to start their career, maybe buy their first home, get married, or even buy a car, When they already owe $25,00 to $40,000, a small mortgage without a home, it is hard to even think about investing in other things. I think the government should take a realistic look at student loans.
The other thing is the Millennium Scholarship Foundation. The problem with the millennium scholarship is the same problem that we had with Canada access grants. It is the problem we had with the Canada student summer jobs program. The problem is that it works, but it is a Liberal initiative that works.
We saw what the Conservatives did with the summer student job program. They tore it apart and then tried to put it back together piecemeal, on the fly. People were still left out. There were less students hired this summer than the year before. At a time of increasing surpluses, we do less for students. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation is an opportunity for this government to reinvest in students.
This year a group of seven student associations, some of which had not always been fans of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, did a study on this and released a paper called “Sleepwalking towards the precipice: the looming $350 million hole in Canada's financial aid system”. On page 1 of the paper, it states:
Eliminating $350 million from the Canadian financial aid system will have a disastrous impact on the accessibility and affordability of a post-secondary education in Canada.
That is the $350 million that goes to students. Some people have always said the millennium scholarship is not a needs-based program and part of it is in fact merit-based. However, on page 3 of this report, it states:
The Millennium Bursary program is the Foundation’s main grant program. 84.8 per cent of the Foundation’s grant funding goes towards the Millennium Bursaries, which helps to ensure that high-need students are able to access and continue their post-secondary studies.
High-need students receive 85% of the funding. “It's a foundation”, some people say, “That's not accountable”. On page 5 of the report, it states:
The Foundation is fiscally efficient and has lower administrative costs than government departments, ensuring that students receive the maximum benefit from federal funds.
By the way, the millennium foundation, which is based in Montreal, works with all the provinces and territories of Canada.
The Millennium Scholarship Foundation is the ideal way for the government, along with Canada access grants, to invest in the Canadians who most need assistance.
We are not a country that can afford to take that many chances. We have been a great nation. We have educated our people very well. We are now facing huge challenges. China, India and Brazil, all the emerging nations of the world, are investing in post-secondary education. Canada has done well in the OECD rankings, but we are getting warnings from it that we are not doing as well as some of the European nations in investing in our students.
The most important thing we can do to improve productivity in Canada is invest in Canadians. The most important way to invest in Canadians is to invest in equality of opportunity for all Canadians. The way to invest in equality of opportunity for all Canadians is the bill that my colleague, the member for Halifax West, brought in and to reinvest in programs like the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, so that not only economically for the nation but socially for every Canadian education becomes the priority that it should be and is not under this government