Stephen Harper’s minority government has been making much of its “innovation strategy” in recent months, especially in regard to how it plays out in post-secondary institutions.

Stephen Harper’s minority government has been making much of its “innovation strategy” in recent months, especially in regard to how it plays out in post-secondary institutions.

In this year’s federal budget, for example, the government boasted that “Canada’s investment in higher-education R&D as a proportion of the economy is the highest among G7 countries.”

In theory, we should all be able to benefit from innovation. But judging from the way this strategy has been carried out across Canada’s universities in recent years, it is clear that it has created winners and losers. To be sure, some students have received top dollar to help further the government’s agenda on this front, but university students in general are graduating with considerably more student debt than when this strategy was first put in place.

Let us be clear: innovation strictly defined is a good thing. According to the Council of Canadian Academies, innovation refers to “new or better ways of doing valued things.”

But, when the federal government talks about an “innovation strategy,” it is referring to the creation of new products, services and technologies. Indeed, a country that can add value to products creates more jobs for its citizens—especially the kind this year’s federal budget referred to as “high-value jobs”—and ultimately increases its tax base.

If you are fortunate enough to occupy a newly-created job in green technology, you will benefit immediately. If you are a patient receiving treatment in the form of a newly-developed medical procedure, the benefit is also obvious.

Even if you are on the margins of society, you should be able to benefit too, both from increased economic activity caused by a successful innovation strategy (which should create more jobs, period) and from the broader tax base that this in turn creates (which should make it easier for governments to fund social programs).

And so, it was understandable when, in this year’s federal budget, the Harper government stated that such a strategy can result in “an increased standard of living for Canadians.”

In practice, however, none of this is a sure thing.

According to the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), a body created in October 2007 to advise the Industry Minister, “Our living standards and quality of life will rise with more energy efficient cars and airplanes, new treatments for diseases, better access to the Internet, and communication devices that connect us as communities and to the global economy.”

Scientific research is key to such a strategy, and post-secondary institutions are fundamental to this. According to STIC, approximately one-third of all research and development in Canada is done at universities.

And when it comes to supporting R&D at its universities, Canada has done very well by international standards over the course of the past decade. Indeed, measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, Ottawa’s funding for university R&D had the single highest growth rate amongst G7 countries between 1997 and 2005.

This year’s federal budget announced initiatives including almost $400 million to assist in the development of “advanced radar remote sensing satellites.” It also announced new funding for regional trade shows to help businesses “showcase their innovative concepts.” And it announced funding to support “emerging technology clusters” in Atlantic Canada in order to encourage businesses in that region to tap into new technologies.

Further, the government reminded us of the roughly $3 billion per year in federal tax incentives that support “business R&D” in this country.

New funding for the National Research Council was also announced, including $75 million for genomics research (for those engaged in the study of organisms) and $48 million for those studying medical isotopes.

And in terms of support for postsecondary institutions, the Harper government reaffirmed its ongoing commitment to both the Canada Research Chair and the Vanier Graduate Scholarship programs. With the former program, the federal government spends $300 million annually to both retain and attract “high-calibre” researchers to Canadian universities. With the latter, 500 “world class” doctoral students—both from Canada and abroad—are awarded scholarships of up to $50,000 per year to further their studies at a Canadian university.

But budgets are about choices, and an inherent one is made when governments announce large measures such as these.  Indeed, it is no secret to those familiar with post-secondary institutions that the “innovation” strategy described above exists alongside what the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) describes as a “high-fees and high-debt model for financing post-secondary education.”

Also, according to the CFS, average student debt for a four-year degree in Ontario has increased by 175 percent—from $8,000 to over $22,000—in the past 15 years.

Finally, as argued in a recent CFS report entitled The Racialised Impact of Tuition Fees, the costs of the above strategy are not equally shared.  Indeed, the CFS points out that students from visible minority groups are more likely to require student loans to finance their education; they therefore incur heavier debt loads than non-visible minorities.

Moreover, it is not clear that most voters agree with the federal government’s current strategy. Polling shows that Canadians believe tuition-fee reductions should be the top priority for government investment in education.

In our current system, a student with a very high grade point average can be deemed a “world-class” student, in which case they may be fortunate enough to receive a fat scholarship.  But most students—especially if they come from a visible minority group—will graduate with considerably more student debt than in the past.

And all of this raises a fundamental question:  if Canada is winning the “innovation” race, what exactly is top prize?

Nick Falvo is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration.  He is also Vice-President Finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).