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Yukon College's Associate VP of Research Development Bronwyn Hancock at the campus in Whitehorse, Yukon, on March 20.Mike Thomas/The Globe and Mail

With new funding for work-integrated learning, a reduction in the interest charged on student loans, and a new building for the country’s first Northern University, both students and postsecondary institutions applauded many of the initiatives in the 2019 federal budget.

The Liberals announced $631-million over five years would go to expanding opportunities for students to learn outside of school. The money will go to enhancing the Student Work Placement Program and create 20,000 additional work placements for students from all fields of study.

“We’re very pleased. There’s real enthusiasm for some key elements we’ve been talking to the federal government about for a long time,” said Mike Mahon, president of the University of Lethbridge and chair of Universities Canada. “It says we believe universities have a critical role to play in educating our young people and ensuring they can be successful.”

Universities had been advocating for an international education strategy, for which the government has now dedicated more than $140-million over five years. Part of that money will be dedicated to pushing more Canadian students to go abroad. Dr. Mahon said only about 11 per cent of Canadian students have an international education experience, which is lower than in countries with which we are often compared.

“Our young people will develop an enhanced understanding of the global community. I think this goes a long way,” Dr. Mahon said.

The other aspect of the international strategy will be devoted to attracting students and researchers from abroad. Canada has seen a vast expansion of its foreign student market over the past decade and it has become an important source of revenue for postsecondary institutions. In recent months, there has been a call to diversify the source countries from which Canada is recruiting to guard against political risk and to enhance diversity at Canadian schools.

There was less in this budget for basic research than some had been hoping, but Dr. Mahon said that looking at the budgets over a number of years indicates the government sees the sector as a key priority.

The floating rate of interest charged on most federal student loans will be reduced from prime plus two and a half per cent to prime. And interest will no longer accrue during the six-month grace period after graduation. The initiative is expected to cost $1.7-billion over five years and will save the average borrower $2,000, according to the government’s projections.

Aran Armutlu, chair of the B.C. Federation of Students, said students are very pleased that the government is reducing the cost of borrowing.

“We know that interest charged on student loans is really a penalty imposed on those from low and middle-income households,” Mr. Armutlu said. He said he was also pleased to see that the government has guaranteed paid parental leave for research students and post-doctoral fellows, as well as expanded scholarships and additional funding for Indigenous students.

Natan Obed, president of ITK, the national Inuit leadership body, said he was encouraged to see $125-million over 10 years for Inuit postsecondary education, although it was less than he had been seeking. He added that the wording around the funding, that it would be “Inuit-led” was particularly significant.

“It’s important to note that only 14 per cent of Inuit have a college or university degree compared to 42 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians, so these funds are a step in the right direction to close that outcomes gap,” Mr. Obed said.

The budget also included a specific promise of $26-million for a new science building at what will become Canada’s first Northern University. Bronwyn Hancock, associate vice-president research and development at Yukon College, which will become Yukon University in 2020, said the institution is hoping the new building will be a catalyst for growth in scientific research in the North, particularly around climate change.

“Canada is the last of the Arctic eight countries to have a university in its north, so we are finally joining that group. It’s really important for the North and our students to be able to get university degrees at home, not to have to go down south,” Dr. Hancock said.

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