Mr. Speaker, I too would like to begin my remarks by commending the member for Fundy--Royal for bringing forward the motion. Increasing access to education is an important issue. I am proud to say that the province of Manitoba is one of the leaders in its efforts to ensure access to a wide range of the population to the post-secondary education system. I have much sympathy for his position and his concerns.
The federal government recognizes the important matter of expanding access to post-secondary education. We know that from this flows significant benefits to individuals, to the economy and to society. A cornerstone of the government's efforts is the Canada student loans program which the member is addressing.
From its inception in 1964 to March 2001 the program has indeed assisted four and a half million full time students by providing a total of nearly $20 billion in subsidized loans. The assistance allows needy students to access the knowledge, skills and learning to obtain better jobs and a better standard of living for themselves and their families.
Not only does the Canada student loans program provide loans to needy students it also provides additional assistance to students in school and provides help to graduates to deal with the problems of high student debt levels. Many of these measures were key components of the Canadian opportunities strategy announced in the 1998 budget.
Specifically, the federal government assists those students in school and in financial need in a number of ways. It provides them with access to student loans of up to $5,610 per year to help them with their financial needs. We all know provinces supplement Canada student loans programs with their student financial assistance programs.
The government fully subsidizes the cost of interest on the loans while students are in full time studies at a cost to the government of nearly $250 million annually. Importantly, the government assists students with special needs through grants to supplement their student loans. There are grants for students with dependents, students with disabilities, high need part time students, and women pursuing doctoral studies.
In the recent 2001 budget the federal government increased by $10 million a year the assistance available for students with disabilities. In addition, the Canada millennium scholarship foundation which was established and funded by the federal government provides bursaries averaging $3,000 to 90,000 students annually.
I heard a colleague over there make a disparaging remark about the Canada millennium program. I invite the member to my office to meet with students who came in to thank us. The Canada millennium scholarships indeed reduce student loans and help students reduce their debt load, which is important as we all know.
In recognition of the problems caused by increasing student debt loads the federal government provides significant additional assistance for graduates experiencing financial difficulties in repaying their student loans. Graduates experiencing financial difficulty in repaying their loans are eligible for interest free periods on their loans for up to 54 months after graduation. During these periods of interest relief the government pays interest on the loans so that they are kept in good standing.
If the graduate is still experiencing financial difficulty after interest relief has been exhausted the loan repayment period can be extended from 10 to 15 years. If there are still problems further debt reduction is available. The maximum amount of assistance is the lesser of 50% of the loan or $10,000.
In addition there is a tax credit for interest paid on federal and provincial student debt. On Canada student loans the tax credit reduces the effective interest rate on the loan to slightly above prime.
Together, these measures provide an insurance policy for graduates in repayment. They ensure that those having difficulty repaying their student loans will not have to go into default. Those with the most serious problems will have their debt reduced, unlike the member's proposal for a tax credit for principal paid on student loans. These measures target federal assistance to those who need the help the most. It is a good example of smart spending.
In summary, the Canada student loans program currently disburses over $1.5 billion in loans annually to nearly 400,000 students and up to $120 million in Canada study grants. Annually the program assists over 30% of all Canadian post-secondary students. The cost to the government of the program is expected to be $925 million in 2002-03.
There is little doubt the Canada student loans program has been an effective way to make post-secondary education more accessible for Canadians. The cost borne by Canadian taxpayers to expand access to post-secondary education is a necessary investment in Canada's future and one which will pay dividends in many ways.
Expanding access to post-secondary education must continue to be a priority for the federal government. A key objective of the recently announced innovation strategy is to ensure that all Canadians have access to post-secondary education, be it university or community college. The Minister of Human Resources Development continues to consult with partners and stakeholders to determine how this objective can best be met. There are many strategies that must be explored and as my colleague said, provinces must assume responsibility.
Increased direct funding to universities must be a priority to lower tuition fees. This provides increased opportunities and increased access. In the province of Manitoba lowering the tuition fees has resulted in increased attendance both at universities and colleges. I am advised the number is near 5,000. Direct grants to identified targeted groups are important to increase access, as are increased forms of tax credits for students. Increased private-public partnerships for student support must continue to be explored and built upon.
I am sure there is no member of the House who does not want to ensure that all talented young people have access to the best education opportunities available to them. However we want to be sure that the moneys and support reach those who most need it to gain access to post-secondary education most appropriate for them.
This is an important issue. Discussion must continue. We must have a full and comprehensive understanding of the results of the measures that we take before we jump on a bandwagon.