Audit cites possible flaws in scholarship program
CanWest News Service; <a href=http://www.canada.com/cityguides/winnipeg/info/story.html?id=612a5f04-a61f-4de8-9579-64acbfd7c340&k=1591>Ottawa Citizen </a>
Monday, November 12, 2007
OTTAWA -- The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation was at risk of awarding bursaries to non-Canadians because some provinces were not conducting thorough screenings, internal audits of the foundation reveal.
Obtained by CanWest News Service through the Access to Information Act, the audits found that some provinces may have awarded money to ineligible candidates since it found that "citizenship and provincial residency are not fully validated against supporting documentation."
Along with non-citizens possibly receiving bursaries, the audits said it was possible that some recipients might be skirting the rules by applying and receiving money from two different provinces because of weak provincial residency checks in Newfoundland.
Conducted by Deloitte & Touche LLP, the 2005 internal audits of the bursaries being awarded in Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador found that insufficient checks on citizenship or provincial residency was creating the risk of ineligible recipients receiving funds.
The audit did not say for certain that any funds were inappropriately awarded or offer any estimate of the number of times it might have occurred. It merely identified where and how problems could occur.
Randolph Harrold, a manager of bursary programs at the foundation, said while "a rash" of ineligible recipients were not identified after the audits, the foundation has made sure the provinces improve their screening to eliminate the risk.
"The internal audit did mention potential areas of weakness in assessing the applicants' eligibility - particularly in relation to citizenship status," said Harrold.
"Few programs are 100-percent error free, and we and our partners are constantly looking for ways to improve eligibility checks."
The audits found that the provinces were verifying with the federal government the existence of the nine-digit Social Insurance Number (SIN) being provided by an applicant but were not taking the extra step of making sure that the number actually belonged to the applicant.
"Citizenship and residency within the province are not validated against supporting documentation. Rather, the assertions made by the student on the application form are relied upon," said the audit for Nova Scotia.
"Therefore, students who do not meet the merit criterion can be awarded a Millennium bursary."
Harrold said since the audit, most of the provinces are suing the federal government's SIN registry to verify the identity of the applicant and the foundation's board has accepted that the current risk for ineligible recipients is fairly low and acceptable.
He also said the Auditor General of Canada has conducted a thorough examination of the foundation since the internal audits, giving it passing marks in all areas. Harrold said Treasury Board also did a study of the agency that found it was "an effective instrument of public policy."
The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, created in 1998 as a legacy project under former prime minister Jean Chretien, gave $298 million in bursaries to 100,000 students in 2006. An additional $40 million was given to 20,000 people in under-represented groups, including low-income, rural and aboriginal students.
But the Conservative government may close the foundation in 2008-09 when its 10-year mandate runs out. Harrold said the foundation is meeting with senior officials in the federal government, including Human Resources and Social Minister Monte Solberg, to discuss its future.
"(Solberg) gave us a very good hearing. They know they need to do something because if we disappear, that will represent 20 percent of grant assistance that students receive," said Harrold.
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