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Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

Federal budget '08: Changes to the Millenium scholarship

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Students know all too well the foreboding expiry of a dwindling bank account. Such is the fate of the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation as it gets set to expire in 2009.

Instead, students will turn to the new Canada Student Grant Program, introduced last week in the Conservative's federal budget, for future post-secondary financial aid.

Created by the Chretien government in 1998, the current foundation offers $350 million per year to students over the span of a decade. Ninety-five per cent of its endowment goes towards students who demonstrate the greatest financial need, while five per cent is awarded to students based on merit.

At its conception, the foundation was criticized to be a federal encroachment into the provincial jurisdiction of education. Furthermore, questions of accountability were raised by the fact that the foundation is operated by an organization at arms-length of the government.

University of Calgary Students' Union vice-president external Mike Selnes, believes the foundation never had an accountability problem.

"Every single federal audit they had of the program said it was one of the most efficient and effective programs," said Selnes. "Despite the appearance, it's really well implemented and it's one of the few federal programs that works incredibly well."

However, the Canadian Federation of Students national chairperson, Amanda Aziz suggested Selnes made a false observation. She pointed out that the foundation actually received a negative report from the Auditor General in 2003 due to its financial displacement and little impact on access to education.

"From our perspective, a grant program that is run by the federal government is much more directly accountable to taxpayers, whereas the foundation's accountability is to its private board of directors," said Aziz.

However, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations national director, Zach Churchill, found agreement with Selnes, that the foundation had achieved accountability--regardless of operation by a third-party.

"Millennium is managing a program that has an overhead of only five per cent, which means there's all this money going towards students," said Churchill.

In the budget speech finance minister Jim Flaherty terminated the Millennium Scholarship Foundation due to its "limited success in encouraging more people to go to college or university, and [inability to] provide students with predictable funding from one year to the next."

Churchill explained he was disappointed with the non-renewal. However, he was optimistic that CASA can work with the government to improve the new grant program in order to make sure it is as successful and efficient as the Millennium Scholarship Foundation was.

According to Flaherty, the new grant program is "simple, transparent and broad-based, providing certainty and predictability for Canadian families." Main components of the new program include monthly grants of $250 for low-income students and $100 for middle-income students rather than lump sums of money. The grant will be paid up-front and through all years of an undergraduate program to increase funding predictability for students.

The federal budget also committed an increase of $430 million by 2012-13 for the grant program. The intention is to reach an increase of more than 100,000 students.

Selnes forsaw potential for problems when attempting to target more students.

"When you're reaching more students, you're helping more people," he said. "But the cost of being a student is going up every year. It's going up more than the rate of inflation. If you're getting $1,000 one year and then $800 the next year--because the money is spread out between more people--your education has actually gone up more in cost, but you might be getting less money."

Churchill also voiced concern with the new grant program.

"We're worried that the target group that this program is trying to support is not as diverse as it should be," said Churchill. "There are also aboriginal students, rural students and first-generation learners who aren't low-income and this program, unlike millennium, is not doing anything to support these other students."

CASA's support for the renewal of the Millennium Scholarship foundation has been met with resistance from the CFS. Although both are lobbying groups representing Canadian students, the CFS are advocating for the foundation's termination and a replacement to a universal needs-based grant system, which is what the Canadian Student Grant Program more closely resembles.

"Our policy and our mandate is set by our membership, and so we feel very strongly about our grants campaign," said Aziz. "People are very happy that our work has paid off in the federal budget, we'll continue with our mandate and go forward with whatever fits it best."

Churchill believes the CFS position on the renewal of the foundation to be "unfortunate."

"It was counter to the will of the majority of the post-secondary community," he said.

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