Statement made on 13 February 2008 by Senator Elizabeth Hubley
Hon. Elizabeth Hubley:
Honourable senators, it has been just over a decade since the Special Senate Committee on Post-secondary Education made its final report. What is striking about that report is how many of the issues the committee addressed are still pressing today. That important study was the culmination of extensive work undertaken by our former colleague, the late Honourable Lorne Bonnell of my province, Prince Edward Island.
Senator Bonnell began his endeavour with an inquiry into the serious state of post-secondary education in April 1996. The following June, on Senator Bonnell's motion, the Senate referred the matter to the Social Affairs Committee, which established a subcommittee for the study chaired by Senator Bonnell. The subcommittee travelled across the country to hear from stakeholders. The interim report of the subcommittee was brought in just before the 1997 election in April. Following the election, the Senate established a special committee, again chaired by Senator Bonnell, to complete the work. The final report contained 27 recommendations and was tabled on December 16, 1997.
Two members of that committee are still members of the Senate today: Senator Andreychuk and Senator Losier-Cool. In addition, eight more of our current colleagues participated in the deliberations of the committee at one time or another, which demonstrates the level of concern in this chamber in regard to post-secondary education.
Honourable senators, the Bonnell report spelled out the vision of the committee for post-secondary education in Canada. I think it continues to be a fair statement of what Canada needs. The vision statement contained four major elements.
First, that research and development be conducted at the highest standard, making original contributions to the global understanding of ourselves and others, of the world around us and to innovations that can improve the lives of people and their environment.
Second, that programs of education and training beyond secondary school be undertaken to ensure the quality of which rivals the best of those available elsewhere that collectively encompass all disciplines and levels of post-secondary study and that serve the many purposes of learning — for democratic citizenship, for personal development, for employment and for sheer enjoyment and enrichment.
Third, that a strong post-secondary sector be developed to be able to absorb demand for education and accessibility regardless of financial capacity, place of residence or any of the factors covered by human rights legislation.
Finally, that extension of talents, services and facilities as an available resource to be tapped into for the resolution of problems, the development of policies and the improvement of living conditions not only in local communities across the country, but at the provincial, national and international levels, as well.
Honourable senators, that vision is still very much relevant today as universities struggle to meet the evolving needs of our society and economy and the requirements of students. On all four fronts, the post-secondary sector is still facing serious challenges, particularly when it comes to funding these important priorities.
I was struck by Senator Bonnell's observation in his 1996 inquiry that the serious state of post-secondary education was significantly worse than it had ever been. While acknowledging that concerns about tuition fees and access were not new, he pointed out that an accumulation of unresolved problems had brought the system to the verge of crisis. He cited the 1991 Smith commission which had reported only five years earlier that universities were "fundamentally healthy and serving the country well.''
By 1996, in the context of fiscal austerity at every level of government, things had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. This near-crisis situation was the impetus for taking on the special study in the Senate.
From reading Senator Bonnell's speech, it seems we have never returned to those relatively secure days of the Smith commission, despite the best efforts of university administrators, student organizations and governments of all levels. My concern is our post-second education system does not have the secure funding necessary to meet the vision articulated by the Bonnell committee. In particular, I am concerned that financial and other considerations continue to be barriers to access for many Canadians.
When I think of issues raised by the Bonnell report, the single greatest disappointment is the failure, 10 years later, to eliminate or even significantly reduce barriers to access. Our failure as a country to guarantee access is fundamentally self-defeating. From the competitiveness of our economy, to the dignity of work that is more likely to come from higher education, to the research and innovations that improve the lives of Canadians and indeed of people all over the world, post-secondary education is an investment that pays returns many times over.
We have a tremendous interest in maximizing the potential of all Canadians not only for their benefit but for the benefit of the country as a whole, yet high student debt remains a barrier to access. A recent survey of university graduates, released by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Committee, found that student debt had increased 10 per cent from 2003 to 2007. The percentage of students with debt loads over $40,000 increased from 16 per cent to 30 per cent in the same period. Among those surveyed, of those with a debt of $40,000 or more, only 29 per cent planned to continue studies next year versus 43 per cent of those with no debt who intended to continue their studies.
When it comes to access, I do not believe financial considerations should be a barrier at all. Post-secondary education has become as essential as a high school diploma once was. As a society, we long ago decided to provide free education through high-school because that was the bare minimum needed to function in a modern economy. Things have changed. A high-school diploma is no longer enough. If the bare minimum now is a post-secondary education, it should also be tuition-free.
When Senator Bonnell concluded his inquiry, he said:
If Canada is to continue competing on the international stage and if our citizens are to continue creating and innovating, then relevant and responsive post-secondary education and training is absolutely necessary. . . . The success of our economy will depend on them, just as our success will depend on their ability to participate fully in all that the economy has to offer.
Honourable senators, I agree completely with that sentiment. We are one of the wealthiest societies on Earth. We have experienced a decade and a half of sustained economic growth. The fiscal austerity of the 1990s, made necessary by economic recession and excessive government deficits, is gone. For several years we had large fiscal surpluses both at the federal and provincial levels. However, the political will to reinvest in post- secondary education — one of the guarantees of continued prosperity — appears to be lacking.
Honourable senators, I have briefly shared my particular areas of concern: Accessibility and funding. However, let me touch on some other aspects that were dealt with in the Bonnell report.
The special committee made too many observations and recommendations for me to discuss them all in the time I have today. Let me highlight a few of the other aspects that I think remain relevant 10 years later.
The Bonnell report recommended federal-provincial cooperation on the important issue of deferred maintenance costs, something I know Senator Moore has pursued over the years. Unfortunately, the committee's recommendations in this area have also gone largely unanswered. The committee was very concerned about the state of student debt. This is not so much an access issue as it is an issue of helping Canadians cope with unsustainable debt, particularly in the era when university education seemed less and less to be a guarantee of a good- paying job.
I recall that Senator Bonnell welcomed Mr. Chrétien's announcement of the Millennium Scholarship Fun as it was designed to address alarming increases in the levels of student debt. The fund was announced just before the Bonnell committee presented its final report. At the time, Senator Bonnell was concerned that the competing priority — rewarding excellence — might be losing out to the equally important priority of need.
Incidentally, the Millennium Scholarship Fund is approaching the end of its 10-year mandate. I hope the government will extend its life. It has made an important difference in the lives of students by providing relief of very high levels of debt.
The Bonnell committee also called for a number of financial changes to reduce the burden on students, and recommended improved mobility of students. For example, it recommended greater transferability of credits from one institution to another. It called for the federal government to make strategic and long- term commitments to research. Time does not permit me to cover these important aspects in detail, and there are many others I have not even mentioned.
I know that many honourable senators are as concerned as I am about the state of our post-secondary education system. I commend to your attention the Bonnell report. Ten years after its tabling, it remains a useful policy document and serves as a resource as we consider how we may confront the challenges that still plague the system today.
I conclude by quoting another honourable senator, for whom I have a great deal of respect. Ten years ago, speaking in the debate on the Bonnell report, Senator Callbeck said:
There is an expression that says: One of the great tests of a nation is the kind of world it leaves to its children; yet the opposite is just as true. The great test of a nation is the kind of children it leaves to the world. Surely we want our youth of today to be the best educated generation that we have ever produced. We cannot settle for less.
Honourable senators, the challenge remains; the only question is whether we will find the will and the means to answer it.
Hon. Hugh Segal: Would the honourable senator accept a question?
Senator Hubley: Yes.
Senator Segal: I appreciate the thoughtfulness and the depth of Senator Hubley's comments. I would like to ask her about the Millennium Scholarship Fund to which she made specific reference in her comments.
As the honourable senator will know, provincial governments across Canada were deeply troubled by the way in which the Millennium Scholarship Foundation came into being and the fact that its provisions were not in any way dovetailed with existing provincial legislation to provide for student financial assistance. In some provinces, when the recipients, who were no doubt meritorious, received their $2,000, under existing provincial law they had to add that to their income, thereby reducing their provincial grants, which had a countervailing effect. This was not because the provinces were being small-minded; they had to observe the law.
In the continuation of the foundation, which Senator Hubley has suggested would be a good thing, does she have any advice for this chamber or the government as to how the operation of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation might be changed in order to obviate that problem in the future?
Senator Hubley: I thank the senator for the question. I am delighted that he brought up the Millennium Scholarship Foundation because, as I have heard from student bodies and university organizations, students very much appreciate those scholarships, and I believe they were well used, although, as the honourable senator indicated, there may have been some difficulty provincially in that regard.
In the most recent visits we had from the two major university organizations, they specifically asked that the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, albeit perhaps through a successor organization, be continued.
I have no answer as to how best to implement the process, but I can say that it seemed to be an indication to students that governments of all stripes were listening to their needs and were recognizing the serious problem that indebtedness has become for them.
Senator Segal: Honourable senators, I would like to get Senator Hubley's reaction to the representations made by the Canadian Federation of Students to many of us on both sides of this chamber. They were concerned that aspects of the current operation of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, such as the funding of large research projects, was getting away from the core premise of flowing cash to students in order to reduce their post-secondary educational debt.
Does the honourable senator have any thoughts in that regard to share with us?
Senator Hubley: One suggestion made to me by representatives of those organizations was that the funding must go directly to the students. In any other way, it would not be working to the best of its ability.
I thank the honourable senator for his question. As a governing body, we should be cognizant of that and watch the hoped for future implementation of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation.
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable senators, I wish to advise that Senator Hubley's time has expired. Is she asking for an extension of time?
Senator Hubley: Yes, I would appreciate that.
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is that agreed, honourable senators?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
Hon. Yoine Goldstein: Honourable senators, in a little more than half an hour the Canadian Federation of Students will be testifying before the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce in connection with the Bankruptcy Act provision precluding, for all practical intents and purposes, the discharge, on favourable terms, of student loan debt when a student is unable to pay the debt.
Senator Hubley cited some rather disturbing statistics with respect to students who are unable to continue their education because of the burden of student debt. They cannot rid themselves of those debts under the existing law, including the recently amended bankruptcy legislation.
Could the honourable senator share her thoughts about the desirability of helping students by making the provisions of the Bankruptcy Act more liberal in dealing with the discharge of student loans? She is aware that there is currently pending before this chamber a private member's bill with respect to that subject. Modesty prevents me from mentioning the name of the sponsor.
Senator Hubley: I thank Senator Goldstein for his question. He has brought a great deal of expertise on that subject matter to the Senate. I had the pleasure of speaking to that bill as well and tried to explain my feelings at the time.
The huge debt loads that some students are currently carrying are a great impediment to their continuing education. I try to put myself in their position of having such a debt load with no opportunity for a job because they have not completed their education.
It is not fair to put young people in such a position. I would support any efforts that the Senate could make to suggest better ways of handling the debt loads our students are experiencing. While I do not have the magic answer, I do appreciate the question highlighting that problem.
Hon. Wilfred P. Moore: Honourable senators, further to the question of Senator Segal, did Senator Hubley have an opportunity to speak with the administrative staff at the Millennium Scholarship Foundation to determine where the money is being spent? There has been a suggestion that large sums are being spent on research and other matters that are not their core mandate.
Senator Hubley: Honourable senators, I did not have an opportunity to speak directly with the administrative staff of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation. However, I listened carefully to what I heard from the students who represent our university organizations, and that was not something they mentioned. I would be disappointed if the funds were not being directed to the students. The questions that have been asked here today have opened another avenue for my study.