'Our economy now runs on ideas'

Will education play a role in the campaign?

According to the Toronto Star, education should be a major feature of an election.

Investing in innovation. The Conservatives did a poor job in their anti-recession stimulus package of building for the future. They could have turned the crisis into an opportunity, but their 2009 budget actually cut funding for scientific research (though they later addressed that mistake by creating more research chairs and luring world-class researchers to Canada). But the steps are still tentative: last year’s federal budget increased Ottawa’s spending on R&D by $200 million — while President Barack Obama was upping U.S. spending by $15 billion.

Canada needs to step up dramatically in this area. Our economy now runs on ideas; more and more of us discover, design and create things. Waterloo’s Research in Motion is the poster child for that kind of innovation, but we need much more. What kind of investment in research and higher education do the parties propose to keep the country competitive for the next generation?

While it is unclear whether education and research will play a central role in a campaign, all three parties have introduced, or hinted, at what their education platforms could look like. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff says he plans to focus on access for students and has, in the past, endorsed centralization by creating a dedicated higher education transfer to the provinces, presumably with conditions similar to the Canada Health Act. We could likely expect something similar from the NDP.

And, if the Tory budget, released earlier this week, really is to double as an election platform, their position is to focus on targeted research for the physical, engineering and technological sciences, while mostly limiting support for students through established programs such as the Canada Student Loans and Grants programs. The Tories have, in the past, promoted developing something similar to a dedicated transfer in higher education, largely through working with the provinces to outline priorities and demanding reporting for how transfers are spent, though they have been slow to follow up.

The federal role in post-secondary education has always been a bit murky. Ottawa is involved in student loans, in part, because it holds jurisdiction over the banking sector, but the provinces still retain responsibility for determining a student’s eligibility for loans. Because of the presumed importance of research to economic development, a large federal role in this area could arguably be justified under the trade and commerce power.

In any case, all three parties advocate a visible role for the federal government in this education and research, with the NDP and the Liberals likely to promise a more robust presence for Ottawa, and the Tories likely to take a more incrementalist approach more in line with the constitutional division of powers.

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