War of two worlds

By Вen Li

Reams of self-congratulatory faxes and press releases, vitriolic rhetoric on the airwaves, and increased nation-wide demand for Grecian Formula for Men all point to one thing: The election cometh.

However, university campuses across the West betrayed that fact months before the federal Liberals make that pronouncement. In the last twelve months, the feds lavished Canadian universities, particularly those in the untamed West, with all sorts of incentives.

In June 2003, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council granted $34.4 million in federal research funding to post-secondary institutions across Canada, with an unprecidented 108 of 290 recipients in conservative Calgary alone. July saw the feds contribute to the $44 million WestGrid supercomputing project which connects several universities in the West. And since fall, Ottawa established enough research chairs at the University of Calgary alone to seat a professional sports team.

In November, the Feds even threw students a bone by making student loans easier on the pocket book, an idea echoed by failed Conservative leadership hopeful Belinda Stronach in late January.

Indeed, with the Liberals polling anywhere from a passable minority to a comfortable majority, they need every vote pre-election spending can buy.

But Alberta was less generous, focusing instead on reducing the provincial debt and consolidating its power over post-secondary education in last winter’s Bill 43, the Post-Secondary Learning Act.

In October 2003, medical students in Calgary and Edmonton decried the province for not ensuring graduates have a post-graduate position to go to after receiving their MDs. November saw Provincial Minister of Learning Dr. Lyle Oberg resist attempts by Ottawa to curtail loans to students attending institutions with many other defaulting students.

In March 2004, the Alberta government announced that post-secondary institutions in Alberta would receive a generous four per cent increase in base operating funding, barely keeping up with consumer but not institutional inflation, while generous tax cuts for the rich were doled out. In April, students heard from the Alberta government that a tuition freeze like the one implemented in Ontario would not happen here.

This is in contrast to February 2004, when student leaders across the country required new underwear as post-secondary education appeared as a major item in the throne speech to Parliament.

With a probable provincial election still a year off (Klein was re-elected in March 2001), the level of government responsible for Alberta’s universities has done little of note. It was announced in October that the U of C would get a new, provincially-funded public library, but little relief is coming for the U of C’s $50 million annual spending cuts. And in December, a long-time Klein confidant voted (ineffectively) with students against a tuition increase at the U of C.

Provincial funding is dripping into PSE faster than in previous years, but the big money will have to wait until after the federal election circus dies down, if the money comes at all.

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