Universities pleased with budget as election looms

In the minutes after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled the budget in the House of Commons and before opposition leaders rejected it, universities found reason for optimism in the 2011 federal budget. As talk soon turned to a possible election Tuesday, university officials were parsing through the good news the budget contained for them – at least for now.

Almost immediately, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) applauded what the document contained for higher education.

“We are pleased in these tough economic times that the government continues to invest in university research as a critical driver of Canada’s future prosperity and economic recovery and are particularly pleased to see an explicit recognition of the importance of social science and the humanities,” says Sheldon Levy, Ryerson University president and COU chair. “These investments will generate positive results, both short- and long-term, for our universities and for our province and most importantly for our students.”

Western officials echo the sentiments.

“We’re pleased to see the federal government signaling strong support for higher education through Tuesday’s budget,” University of Western Ontario President Amit Chakma says. “Increased funding for tri-council grant programs and indirect costs of research, the creation of 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), and a number of commitments aimed at improving student assistance and boosting international research collaborations all demonstrate an appreciation for the important role universities play in driving Canada’s economic prosperity.”

Of primary interest, the budget provided a $37-million increase to the federal granting councils and an additional $10 million to support the indirect costs of research. (Ontario’s universities account for 43 per cent of all research undertaken on Canada’s university campuses.)

Of the annual granting council increases, $15 million goes to Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to support research in natural sciences and engineering fields, such as the Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation; $15 million to Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to support advanced health-related research, such as the Strategy on Patient-Oriented Research; and $7 million to Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to support research in social sciences/humanities.

Ted Hewitt, Western’s vice-president (research & international relations), nods to all parties for continuing to foster a strong research environment in Canada. He says the funding increases to the granting councils will go some distance toward translating Western’s – and Canada’s – research goals into reality.

He also highlights the budget’s creation of 10 new CERC positions at a cost of $53.5 million over five years. The new chairs will be selected through a competitive process.

“I look forward to engaging in the chance to recruit new researchers of the elite quality of Dr. Adrian Owen,” Hewitt says, citing the famed neuroscientist awarded $10 million from the CERC program to conduct his research at Western.

“In this global, knowledge-based economy, investments in research are essential to building and maintaining Canada’s competitiveness,” says Bonnie Patterson, COU president and CEO. “This budget makes clear that the Government of Canada believes strongly in the important role that research plays in driving positive economic and social outcomes for Canadians.”

“Ontario universities also appreciate the budget’s international commitments, which will help to attract students from around the world, give domestic students a global experience and boost international research collaborations.”

Although lacking specifics, Western officials express interest in seeing further details about two areas: $12 million over five years for a competition to select a Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence and up to $100 million to help establish the Canada Brain Research Fund.

Student-focused support in the budget centred on tweaks to loans and grants. The biggest headlines were made by providing student loan forgiveness programs for doctors and nurses – $40,000 for doctors, $20,000 for nurses – who opt to practice in remote or rural areas.

“Of course a financial incentive is going to encourage medical graduates to at least consider rural practice,” says Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry Dean Michael Strong, “but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. There are numerous other strategies already in play. For instance at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, we expose our students to rural experiences right from year one, and that seems to have made a difference.

“Getting a financial break may help, but I think you’ll find money is seldom the deciding factor in the career choices of medical graduates.”

The budget also doubled the in-study income exemption ($50 to $100 per week) and allowed part-time students to have higher family incomes without affecting their eligibility for a Canada Student Loan.

Other items of post-secondary interest included:

  • $35 million over five years to the NSERC to support climate change and atmospheric research;
  • Additional $12 million over five years to NSERC’s Idea to Innovation program to support joint college-university research and development projects with promising commercialization potential;
  • $3 million in 2011–12 and $5 million per year on a permanent basis in 2012–13 to NSERC to support 30 new Industrial Research Chairs at colleges. These resources will assist colleges in accelerating applied research in fields where there is an important industrial need.