Teaching our children well

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It is an article of faith in public-policy circles that pigs fly more reliably than do governments seeking to improve the educational systems under their aegis. Sometimes, though, porcine wings do flap and take to the sky.

A rare case in point was last month’s announcement in Fredericton that, henceforth, the New Brunswick government will cover the cost of tuition not already insured by the feds for students attending post-secondary institutions in the province – those whose families earn $60,000 or less in any given 12-month period. Enthused Premier Gallant: “We, as a province, will be able to tell those children, ‘Work hard, do what you can to get into a university or college and we’ve got you covered. . .Of those New Brunswick students who apply for student financial assistance, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent will qualify for this program.”

Indeed, this measure, at a cost of roughly $25 million to taxpayers per academic year (at least, initially), effectively delivers something akin to free higher education to as many as 7,100 aspiring scholars in humanities, sciences, business, and trades in 2016-17 – not quite, though, given that the new Tuition Access Bursary doesn’t pay for books, fees and living expenses.

Still, it’s better than a kick in the pants. And, as the former CEO of my own private bank of student bursaries, I’m not alone in thinking so.

Says Travis Daley, vice-president external of the University of New Brunswick’s student union: “This is a momentous move forward by this government. It allows for higher education to be a reality for students who might not have considered it before.”

UNB president Eddy Campbell agrees with the student advocate. (When, in fact, does that ever happen in the fractious arena of organized academe)?

“Roughly half of the students at UNB today are the first in their family to go to university,” Dr. Campbell told reporters after a news conference. “We know those are the students who often need extra help to be here, and I have no doubt a whole bunch of those students will qualify for this program. . .(The government) is doing the right thing.”

University of Moncton economist and author Richard Saillant also concurs with the prevailing opinion. In a radio interview, he noted, “We’re talking about enhancing participation in post-secondary education and we’re talking about fairness and future prosperity. . .I don’t think we can afford to dither any longer on that file. . .This measure will enhance participation in the labour market, so it’s good economic policy, it’s good social policy and it’s also good educational policy.”

Here, here!

Still, enlightened public policy is one thing. Effective program delivery is quite another. The difference between the two is what usually keeps pigs firmly rooted to the ground.

What protocols and protections have the Gallant government installed to ensure that low-income students need not wade through myriad bureaucratic pens before they receive their benefits? What red tape and paper-burden have public officials decided are in no one’s best interest?

The history of student funding in Canada is a litany of nightmarish anecdotes, invariably invoking both federal and provincial funding agencies and, in the worst cases, the big banks and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Will the New Brunswick government accompany its new, well-intentioned policy with the streamlined apparatus to keep from harm those it now purports to help – the most economically vulnerable, attempting to dream, to do, to achieve, perhaps beyond even their own expectations?

Let us hope so.

Let us hope that pigs fly.

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