Higher-education leaders are beaming after a federal budget pegged as lean and low-profile delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in new research funding along with more modest plans to help students preparing to land jobs.
Days after the Conservative government announced $1.9-billion for First Nations education reform, Tuesday's budget promised $1.5-billion over a decade to launch the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, starting with $50-million in 2015-16.
The budget also provides a $46-million annual boost to research granting agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and pledges $40-million to fund internships, while extending student loans to some apprentices. But it is the promise of 10 years of new research dollars, aimed at keeping Canada globally competitive, that has university presidents hailing the document as a milestone moment.
"This is beyond my expectations," said University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope.
The Research Excellence Fund – which will escalate to $200-million per year from 2018 onward – will be flexible, with universities and perhaps colleges competing for funds to spend in targeted areas, which could mean hiring new talent, buying new equipment, or securing international partnerships.
In a nod to commuter students from rural or suburban communities, the government will no longer consider the value of student-owned cars when tabulating loan eligibility. That will mean an estimated $8-million more aid for students each year, said The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
In its ongoing effort to remedy a perceived skills gap, the government is extending student aid to apprentices in their first Red Seal training program, a certification that provides Canada-wide mobility for skilled workers. It is offering $100-million in loans to 26,000 apprentices during technical training. A further $40-million over two years will fund 3,000 internships in so-called "high-demand fields," though student advocates and career educators derided the initiative as a drop in the bucket helping fewer than 1 per cent of postsecondary graduates.
A further $10-million over two years is earmarked for colleges to do social-innovation research with community organizations.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Denise Amyot, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, who called the budget as a whole "very good news."