PSE research needs new home in post-CMSF era

Without CMSF’s research, education may be out of media spotlight: academic


Vital research about access to Canada’s post-secondary system could be jeopardized, experts say, if the federal government doesn’t replace the work done by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation (CMSF) after it shuts its doors.

In addition to providing bursaries to students, the CMSF used part of its $3 billion endowment to conduct research on the effectiveness of its programs and the accessibility of the post-secondary system to under-represented groups in Canada. The organization has for the last few years produced a widely cited report entitled The Price of Knowledge: Access and Student Finance in Canada.

The CMSF’s mandate expires in 2009. After much debate and anticipation in the higher education community, the government announced in its most recent budget that the Foundation would not be renewed. A new national bursary system administered through Human Resources and Social Development Canada will replace the CMSF.

The CMSF’s Peter Cowan explained that in his opinion, the organization’s research served an important function. “A number of groups have said they have found our research important, and we certainly consider it important because this is a fairly significant area. If you want to expand access to [post-secondary education], you need good information on which to base decisions and evaluate programs,” he said.

Cowan added that the CMSF will continue to do its work until it is phased out, and that includes a number of ongoing pilot projects and studies. He said that several reports would be released in the summer, beginning later this month.

Both of Canada’s largest student lobby groups recently testified at the Senate’s national finance committee, which was meeting to discuss Bill C-50. Contained in that bill is the process for the dissolution of the CMSF.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Canadian Federation of Students (which has taken issue with some of the conclusions of the CMSF’s research) both suggested that the research function was important and should be pursued by the federal government after the CMSF is phased out.

Dale Kirby, a researcher at the Memorial University in Newfoundland and a popular post-secondary blogger, said that while education issues are on the agenda in the U.S. and U.K., it is not always the case in Canada. Kirby said that the CMSF sometimes thrust education issues into the media spotlight.

“One of the constant laments in this country is that post-secondary education is an under-covered area … the media doesn’t put as much emphasis on it,” he said. “The Millennium Scholarship Foundation’s research program gave the media something to stick its teeth into. A lot of that is going to go away.”

Kirby added that the research itself could be continued by other organizations, including the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). That sentiment was echoed by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives’ vice-president David Stewart-Patterson, who recently made presentations to the House of Commons finance committee and the Senate’s national finance committee.

“The specific suggestion I’ve made is that the government consider shifting that (research) mandate … to the Canadian Council on Learning, which is doing a lot of other research work in the broad field of what works better and what works less well in education policy in Canada,” he said. “I think (the CCL) has developed a reputation for sound, credible research.”

Stewart-Patterson said that his concern is that current federal funding of the CCL, which is due to expire next April, is also nearing the end of its mandate.

Not every post-secondary stakeholder was on board with the CMSF’s research. The Canadian Association of University Teachers saw the information produced in reports as redundant.

“We were not supportive of the research component of what they were doing, arguing that much of the research that they were looking at was being done through other agencies,” said associate executive director David Robinson, who added that students weren’t entirely satisfied either. “I think for many students, they were questioning the value of that (research), particularly when there was a perception that much of the research was biased or skewed towards one particular perspective.”

Cowan has received no indication that the government would continue the research carried out by the CMSF. “All I can tell you is that what happens beyond the end of the foundation’s mandate, and particularly in terms of research, is up to the government,” he said.

Kirby concluded that the federal government would do well to create an arms-length research agency to supplement the work done by the CCL and other groups, including the Canadian Policy Research Networks. “I think that if government wanted to do away with the financial aid part of (the CMSF), they could easily have preserved the research arm of it — to fund an arms-length research agency,” he said. “They could easily have endowed some funds for another 10 years just for research, if it was so important to do away with the Chrétien legacy of the scholarships.”

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PSE research needs new home in post-CMSF era

  1. NB – By way of full disclosure, I served on the CMSF Research Review Panel for several years and have subsequent to that reviewed research papers for the CMSF. For this, I received honoraria from the Foundation. That fact does not influence my comments below.

    The loss of the research functions of the CMSF will be a great blow both to policy research and academic research on higher education in Canada.

    In 1997, my colleagues Colleen Hawkey, Ann Marie Vaughn and I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education that gave an overview of the of tuition fee and student aid policy questions in Canada, cataloged what little Canadian research had been done to that time and proposed a number of research questions that should drive a future research agenda on these matters. The three of us had hoped to be able to address some of these questions in our subsequent academic research, but this largely did not occur.

    I think that our proposed research agenda would have fallen into obscurity had the CMSF not decided to implement a research program in 2001. My colleagues and I were very happy to learn that our paper was one of those that was used to identify the knowledge gaps in access and student financial assistance in Canada, and therefore shape the CMSF’s research agenda.

    The CMSF research program has been of incalculable value to academics that study higher education in Canada. The program has provided funding to do literature reviews and studies that might otherwise never have taken place. The CMSF research program also encouraged many new researchers to look at higher education issues. There was a time when I could name all of the handful of academics working on access and student financial assistance programs in Canada. Today, I keep stumbling across people I’ve never heard of before who have taken up research in these areas.

    This is not to say that I agree with all the research questions that have been asked, or the way they have been answered. I certainly think that various research projects could have been done better, or would have been more informative if had been approached from a more sociological, rather than economic, perspective. Also, in the early days of the research program, I think there were conclusions that were drawn from available data that were stronger, and more provocative, than the data allowed.

    There is absolutely no doubt in mind, however, that the CMSF research program has been a very good thing for policy research and academic research on higher education in Canada. It has provided opportunities for existing researchers, brought new researchers into the field, and forced us all to look at questions of post-secondary access in far more sophisticated ways.

    As my colleagues and I observed in 1997:

    “Canadian research into these questions tends to be clustered around particular points in time, which are often a function of current policy debates. In contrast, there is a more or less continuous body of research in the United States.”

    I certainly hope that we will be able to maintain the research momentum created by the CMSF and not have this be yet another momentary ‘blip’ in Canadian higher education research.

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