Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the distinguished member for Scarborough—Guildwood, the gentleman who last night brought forward a great private member's bill that I hope the House adopts.
I welcome this opportunity to speak to the motion put forward by my colleague and good friend from Halifax West. For me there is no more important issue in Canada today than this one, the education of all Canadians at all stages of their life, but in particular, educating and preparing young Canadians for the globally competitive world in which we now exist.
The motion speaks to this in a way that has not been addressed by the government in its own narrow five priorities. In fact, it is staggering to me and I think staggering to a lot of Canadian families that education is not considered a priority by the government.
I have spoken on many occasions in the House about the value of investing in education and research and, in particular, investing in young Canadians. It is unfortunate that the recent budget put politics above policy. It seems that it is more important these days on the government side to be seen to be doing something rather than actually making decisions that would impact Canadians in a real and positive way.
The heart of the challenge that faces Canada, which is to increase productivity and to continue a standard of life for Canadians that frankly we have become accustomed to, is going to be, more and more, a challenge in a world that no longer offers a free pass to success.
As Jeffrey Simpson said recently:
The world out there isn't standing still. Only by improving the human skills of the population and making the investment climate more attractive can Canada compete better. By that standard, this [federal] budget is strangely irrelevant.
Other members will speak to the great success that we have achieved as a nation in the areas of research and innovation in the past seven or eight years. In fact, members of the government will no doubt agree with their own budget documents, which state the following on page 36:
--the federal government has increased its support for post-secondary education research, with nearly $11 billion in incremental funding. These investments have assisted Canadian universities in strengthening their research capacity and building a global reputation for excellence, which has helped reverse the “brain drain” and attract leading researchers to Canada. Canada now ranks first in the G7...in terms of research and development....
Of course those are not my words. Those are the words of the current government, which quite rightly applauds the work of the previous government on this issue.
In my capacity as chair of the government caucus on post-secondary education and research, I had the opportunity last year to travel Canada. I heard similar stories from coast to coast, stories of universities that were facing difficult times but were saved by these direct federal investments and that in fact have thrived under these investments.
These investments have had a huge impact in a positive way on our universities, a huge impact in a positive way on our nation and a huge impact in a positive way in our regions. For example, ACOA and the Atlantic investment fund have done a great job of building capacity in Atlantic Canada. These investments also have had a great and positive impact in our communities. In my own community last year, Research In Motion, RIM, announced that it would be setting up a plant in Halifax and it credited the ongoing commitment of the federal government to research and innovation as the key reason for its success.
The day after the Conservative budget was released, the Globe and Mail outlined how successful Canada's economy has been in the last number of years and also offered some free advice to the government. It listed the areas that were most important for investment in Canada if our success is to continue. The top two areas it cited were education and the environment.
We all know what the Conservatives have done to the environment agenda by eliminating the Kyoto protocol and going with its made in Canada solution, which is really no solution whatever, but like the government, I am not focusing on the environment. Unlike the government, I will focus on post-secondary education and research.
I want to talk about student access. Providing access is essential.
In a recent op-ed piece, Ian Boyko of the Canadian Federation of Students stated:
--the Government of Canada estimates that 74% of new jobs created this year will require post-secondary education. Sadly, the government today lacks its predecessor's vision for access to education.
I agree with the CFS on a wide range of issues, perhaps not all but most, and I have worked closely over the past couple of years with its leadership. It rightly points out that despite our efforts in the past, and some successes, we remain a nation where it is the case that access to education is still a national problem.
It is certainly a problem in my own province of Nova Scotia, which has the highest tuitions in the country. In the maritime provinces, student debt skyrocketed by 33% in five years. I am not advocating that the federal government has a direct role in setting tuition. To me, that is not the case at all.
However, the federal government does have a role, along with the provinces, in the area of student assistance. We can do this by implementing across the board grants that would bridge the opportunity gap between those who have and those who have not. These direct investments, along with other measures, would assist Canadians most in need.
When it comes to post-secondary education, we are talking about low income Canadians, persons with disabilities and aboriginal Canadians. Last fall I was very proud when the finance minister introduced his economic update, which included massive investments into direct student assistance. It included a number of elements: $1 billion to the provinces and territories for post-secondary innovation; $2.2 billion for student financial assistance, targeted to low income Canadians; and over a half a billion dollars to expand the Canada access grants for low income Canadians to cover all years of an undergraduate education. It included, and to me this is very important, $265 million to assist Canadians with disabilities, as well as $2.5 billion in new funding to sustain Canada's leadership in research.
There were a number of investments. Overall it was a $9 billion package to invest in upgrading Canadian skills and capabilities. I think it was the single biggest plan for post-secondary education and research that has ever been introduced in Parliament.
That federal economic update was a sweeping plan for post-secondary education that built on Bill C-48 of last year, the arrangement between the government and the New Democratic Part that was included in the budget. Bill C-48, as many will recall, included an element of post-secondary education, and said that it was “for supporting training programs and enhancing access to post-secondary education, to benefit, among others, aboriginal Canadians, an amount not exceeding $1.5 billion”.
The fall economic update went way beyond Bill C-48. It would have made a huge difference in the lives of Canadian students. Unfortunately, of course, it is gone, replaced by an election and a new budget that provides little if anything for most students, certainly nothing for students most in need. On the issue of accessibility, there is nothing.
In the finance committee last week when the Minister of Finance appeared, I asked him regarding Bill C-48 what happened to the money, what happened to the $1.5 billion? His first response was that it was not $1.5 billion, but a billion. I said, “No, I have it here, Mr. Minister”. I asked him if the investment in infrastructure, which is really all there is in the budget, was from Bill C-48 and if that equated to student access. His response was that it did. In my view and in the view of most Canadians, infrastructure does not equate to access.
We do need investments in post-secondary infrastructure and research. We have made them and we will continue to make them as a nation, I hope, although the budget of the Conservative government has one-tenth of the money dedicated to research that the economic update had.
We need investments in research and we need investments in infrastructure, but one cannot suggest, based on any evidence that I have seen, that investments in infrastructure equate directly to investment in student access. A tax credit on books and scholarships simply makes no difference to those most in need, many of whom do not make enough to pay income tax anyway.
The evidence shows that federal education tax measures disproportionately favour high income earners and do not do enough to improve access to post-secondary education. The tax credit on books is $80. As for $80 for a student in my home province of Nova Scotia who is paying anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, I would suggest that not only is it not particularly helpful, it is actually insulting.
We have come a huge way in Canada through direct federal investment in our post-secondary institutions. We have reversed the brain drain, built capacity and spurred economic growth. Our challenge now is to ensure that we do everything possible to ensure that Canadians have every opportunity to develop their skills. It will not happen through tinkering with taxes.
We have taken some steps, but now there is a confluence of events with the emerging economies, the productivity crunch, the investments made to date, and the massive surplus. It is time to take action. Direct support to students in need is good for students, but it is very good for Canada as well. I would say that it is absolutely vital. The government is asleep at the switch on this critical issue. It is time to wake up, follow the lead of the Liberal government and invest in our students now.