Michael Ignatieff's pledge of $1-billion a year for students to attend college or university puts much-needed emphasis on education, which is critical to Canada's future.
The "Learning Passport" - $1,000 or $1,500 a year to high school students, depending on their family income, for four years - would be held in a Registered Education Savings Plan to cover a share of tuition, while maintaining the need for students and their families to provide their own funds (or borrow for the remainder). Higher education is the single best guarantee of higher earnings and future success; now is a good time, as other countries struggle with crippling debt loads, to make further investments in people.
The Conservative Party was quick to try to discredit the idea, saying that it would cost students their eligibility for existing grant programs. This seems hard to fathom; surely it could be made compatible. The Conservatives would be better off putting their minds to how to continue to stimulate interest in education and training.
Canada needs to think hard about how to bring marginalized young people into the mainstream. Labour shortages are expected not far down the road. Young people from low-income families tend not to have a tradition of investing in themselves, and taking on debt. There is a wide disparity in who attends university (and for that matter, in who contributes to their children's RESP). Before they've even begun high school, almost half of low-income students have already made up their minds about whether postsecondary school is for them, according to research by the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation. The Liberal "Learning Passport" may help reach a group that could otherwise be left behind. The promise of money being put aside as soon as they reach Grade 9 may encourage more young people to dream big.
The plan would also help, in a small way, to lighten the debt loads of young Canadians. The Liberals are also to be commended for not creating a new bureaucracy, using the existing Registered Education Savings Program system to deliver the money.
The program does raise some design questions. It would give more to attend Quebec's CEGEPs (junior colleges) than it actually costs to attend CEGEP. And who would qualify is still not clear - on first examination, only around one-third of Canada's 2.2 million 15 to 19-year-olds would receive the money, if the program were to be capped at $1-billion a year.
Mr. Ignatieff falls down on one key consideration, saying he would pay for the grants by reversing Conservative corporate tax cuts. Those tax cuts are (like his proposed investment in education) a pro-growth move, and cancelling them will not save as much money as Mr. Ignatieff suggests.
One thing, though, is clear. The money is better spent on building up students than at building out new prisons - something the Conservatives continue to commit to, in defiance of all evidence at the growing cost of those prisons, and of what actually drives economic growth.