On the seventh stop of his cross-country tour of Canadian campuses, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was given a hard time by students at the University of Manitoba. Seconds after the leader of the opposition started his presentation, a massive banner was rolled down from the second floor of the U of M’s Drake Centre brandished with a list of challenges facing Canadian students. After a few minutes, Ignatieff asked that the banner be removed because it was blocking the view of several audience members.
Despite the disturbance, Ignatieff went on with the event, opening the floor to questions from students after briefly criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper for proroguing Parliament.
While speaking to the university crowd, Ignatieff repeatedly emphasized that the federal government needs to prioritize education. “This is the engine room of the Canadian economy, and we need to put gas in the tank,” he said.
Ignatieff also says he advocates implementing a dedicated federal transfer for higher education. Presently, the federal education transfer is lumped in with the Canada Social Transfer, and there are no stipulations ensuring the money is actually spent on education, rather than falling into general revenue. “We have to have a way as a country to say: how do we prioritize education?” Ignatieff said.
Ignatieff says that students are not only living through a recession, but living through a “restructuring of the global economy,” saying that this is one of the main reasons why it’s important for the federal government to invest in “brain power.” The leader of the opposition also indicated that some of the operating costs of university research should be met by the federal government. He accused the Conservatives of funding capital projects to build labs but then failing to adequately operating costs. “We need a national strategy that says this kind of research is crucial to our economic future.”
Ignatieff also says that this doesn’t mean that every research project should be funded. “We need to have a national strategy in which we say, not everyone can be funded here, lets get peer review, the scientists in the field to decide who should get [funded].”
While speaking at Dalhousie University earlier this week, Ignatieff cautiously endorsed distributing federal funding on a per-student basis. As is, the size of the education transfer does not take into consideration the number of students actually educated within a province. It is based on population.
This funding model could potentially hurt provinces like Manitoba, which takes in disproportionately fewer out-of-province students, while provinces like Nova Scotia that take in disproportionately more out-of-province students, would benefit from the change. Ignatieff also endorsed this idea in a pamphlet distributed to Liberal party members during his unsuccessful 2006 bid for the Liberal leadership.
However, when asked about a federal per student funding model at the University of Manitoba, Ignatieff dismissed it. “You’re taking me further than I think the Liberal party is prepared to go. . . We respect provincial jurisdictions in education.” Although, Ignatieff did leave the option of a federal per student transfer open, saying, “I think we should explore the question.”
Ignatieff is visiting 11 university campuses across the country this week to kick off the Canada at 150 conference to be held in Montreal at the end of March.