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Post Secondary Education Accessibility Study

Honourable senators, I am pleased to respond to a tabled motion now before the Senate. Canadians believe in the value of post-secondary education. Who amongst us here would say differently?

Education facilitates career building, improves opportunities for our young people and helps them achieve what they want out of life. Our government recognizes this and has taken action to strongly support post-secondary education in Canada.

As a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests, Canadians remain the most educated people among the OECD member countries. In 2006, an average of 27 per cent of the population in OECD countries had obtained post-secondary education. In that same year, honourable senators, 47 per cent of Canadians had education beyond high school. Honourable senators, while this commitment to higher learning among Canadians is impressive, we cannot and do not take it for granted.

In times of economic uncertainty, it is more important than ever for Canadians to invest in post-secondary education. That is why, through the Economic Action Plan, our government reiterated its commitment to strengthen Canada's workforce by continuing to support student financial assistance. This government's record on post-secondary education speaks to the tremendous value and importance of helping Canada's students.

Indeed, our government has significantly increased annual transfers to the provinces and territories for post-secondary education. Transfers have been increased by 40 per cent, up by more than $1 billion since 2006. It is worth noting that the Canadian Federation of Students praised our 2007 investments, and said that our 2007 Budget represented ". . . the largest cash infusion for post-secondary education in recent memory, and good news for a university and college system that is still struggling after more than two decades of cuts . . ."

Our government is increasing funding for post-secondary education in fiscal 2008-09 through the Canada Social Transfer. Again, the Canadian Federation of Students praised our investments, stating that an increase for federal funding for post-secondary education is a positive step toward restoring the massive previous government's funding cuts from the late 1990s.

As Finance Minister Flaherty confirmed in the Economic Action Plan, this government will not cut transfers to the provinces for education. While we welcome an ongoing discussion about the value of post-secondary education, we believe the government is already strongly addressing many of the aspects raised in the motion. For that reason, I would like to review some of the government's recent actions to support higher learning.

Every year, more than 300,000 students take advantage of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada's Student Loans Program, and our government is pleased to continue supporting this program to help our young people succeed.

In Budget 2008, we introduced comprehensive new measures to make the Canada Student Loans Program more effective, transparent and predictable for students and families.

Our government has also introduced the new Canada Student Grant Program, which will improve access to post-secondary education for students from low- and middle-income families. To make this happen, the government is investing $350 million in 2009-10 for the grant program, a figure that will rise to $430 million in the years 2012-13.

Our government is also concerned about the debt load encumbering many students and how this may impact on their decision to pursue post-secondary education. Again, our government has listened to students and taken action. To respond to these concerns, Budget 2008 replaced the Interest Relief and Debt Reduction Program with the Innovative Repayment Assistance Plan. Under this new plan, students will pay no more than 20 per cent of their income toward their loans. What is more, the government will forgive any amounts beyond this affordable payment, either interest only in the first stage or principal and interest for those experiencing prolonged difficulties, to ensure that no debt remains at the end of 15 years.

This program will go a long way toward ensuring, for instance, that Canadian students are not forced down the damaging path of bankruptcy due to their student debt loads. This is a positive change that will help all Canadian students, one that makes such more sense than simply tinkering at the edges or increasing incentives for bankruptcy.

Over the past decade, to help Canadian families put money aside for their children's higher learning, our government has provided a 20 per cent grant on contributions made to a Registered Education Savings Plan on behalf of a child, to any amount up to $2,500 saved annually. In addition, our government provides the Canada Learning Bond to encourage modest-income families to start saving early for their children's post-secondary education. For a child who qualifies, the government makes a first payment of $500 and adds extra payments of $100 a year, up to a lifetime maximum of $2,000, directly into the child's RESP.

Our government is following through on its commitments to support higher learning and is making good progress in helping Canada's students with direct, effective assistance. We continue to look for ways to improve our programs.

Canada's Economic Action Plan introduced new measures to increase higher learning in Canada. We invested $87.5 million to expand the Canada Graduate Scholarship Program and invested $500 million over two years in the Strategic Training and Transition Fund.

The current economic crisis presents this government with an opportunity to invest in human capital. This government has a long-term vision for the Canadian economy and we are acting accordingly. Investments in human capital are investments that are made with an eye for the long term.

Honourable senators, it is evident that this government has acted and is continuing to act to provide students with the assistance they need to succeed. For all these reasons, we hope that if or when the committee undertakes the study as proposed by my honourable colleague, they will keep in mind the work that is already done and the work that this government is continuing to do to improve access and bring down the barriers for students in this country who are seeking to better themselves through the pursuit of higher learning.