Trudeau re-election raises hopes of student finance reform

Liberals’ likely partners equally committed to reducing burden on graduates

October 22, 2019
Justin Trudeau
Source: iStock

The party of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau won enough seats to stay in government, but its failure to win a majority leaves it relying on smaller parties, who are likely to be equally committed to seeking greater investment in higher education.

Mr Trudeau's Liberal Party took an estimated 156 seats in the House of Commons, down from 184 in 2015 but ahead of the estimated 122 seats won by Conservatives, despite the Conservatives winning a narrow plurality of votes nationwide.

The Liberal total is short of the 170 seats needed for an outright majority. Its most likely partner to cover the gap is the New Democratic Party, which sits politically to the left of the Liberals, and won an estimated 24 seats.

Anticipating such a situation, the NDP said ahead of the election that cancelling interest on federal student loans was one of its six conditions for joining the Liberals in a coalition government.

The NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, reiterated that commitment in his post-election speech in British Columbia, saying he was committed to “tackling student debt by waiving all interest on student loans”.

The NDP also has set a more general goal of a move toward fully publicly funded higher education, while recognising the central role of the provinces in such an effort, said Erika Shaker, director of the education project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The Liberals also made campaign-trail promises to help college students. Mr Trudeau’s plan would increase student grant aid by 40 per cent; give new graduates two years before starting to repay student loans rather than the current six months; and let graduates postpone those repayments until they are earning at least C$35,000 (£21,000) – up from the current trigger of C$25,000.

It’s far too early to know if and how the platforms might be combined in a coalition setting, Ms Shaker said. “We might not know for weeks what the Liberals will commit to if they do work in some formal coalition situation with the NDP,” she said.

Coalition governments in Canada are rare and typically last no more than two years. The Conservative Party leader, Andrew Scheer, anticipated that reality, promising his supporters in Regina, ‎Saskatchewan, that Mr Trudeau’s Liberal government was losing popular backing and “will end soon”.

A main Conservative campaign goal for higher education would have increased the federal contribution to the Canada Education Savings Grant. The grant is generally regressive, since many lower- and middle-income families can’t afford it, Ms Shaker said. The Conservative proposal, if eventually enacted, “would continue the existing pattern of benefiting wealthier Canadians even more”, she said.

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