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Speculative Diction

PSE and the Ontario provincial election


Full disclosure: I’m currently helping with the campaign to re-elect Ted McMeekin (Liberal, Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale) and in the past I worked on a federal campaign (2008) for Gerard Kennedy, former Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park.

Ontario’s provincial election is coming up on October 3rd and since postsecondary education (PSE) is provincial jurisdiction in Canada, I decided to take a look at the various PSE policies being proposed by the four major political parties.

For non-Canadian readers, a provincial election provides a glimpse at the politics of Canada’s two-tiered governance of education (which I discussed in this earlier blog post). Since education policy is the jurisdiction of the provinces, the provincial elections are most likely to generate debate about education issues.

In Ontario, the PSE system continues to suffer from certain chronic problems; cuts during the recession of the 1990s, at both federal and provincial levels, left a large funding gap. Tuition in Ontario is the highest in Canada, and this has brought criticism about rapid expansion of enrolments without corresponding increases to government funding. The political-economic situation has developed over a 20-year period in which three different parties have governed the province: the NDP led by Bob Rae, the Progressive Conservatives led by Mike Harris and then Ernie Eves, and the current Liberal government with Dalton McGuinty leading, elected in 2003. This is the context in which the following policy proposals are presented. I haven’t included all the details, but links to further information are provided.

Green Party of Ontario: The GPO platform, released last spring, promises a tuition freeze for 2012-2013 school year, indexation of further tuition increases to the rate of inflation from 2013-2015. Differentiated fee increases — those that differ by degree level and program — would be eliminated. They also plan to improve high-speed Internet access across Ontario, which could facilitate online learning.

New Democratic Party of Ontario: The NDP released the PSE element of their platform on September 15. The primary proposals are the elimination of interest from the Ontario portion of all OSAP loans, and a tuition freeze across the province for the next four years; this would cost $110 million in the first year. The operating funding lost by universities through the tuition freeze would be replaced by provincial government funding, though current tuition levels would not be rolled back. OSAP (Ontario student loans) would also be extended to part-time students based on need, and differentiated fee increases would end. The broad-based approach that targets fee increases has won praise from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

Ontario Liberal Party: Released on September 5, the Liberal platform contains more than the usual amount of PSE-related content, probably because as the incumbents the OLP have had time to work out specific plans and programs. They’re building on an established trajectory that has included expansion of enrollments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, gradual changes to the limits on student assistance, and capped tuition increases. If re-elected the Liberals would continue expansion with 60,000 new PSE spaces, for which colleges and universities will have to compete, and the construction of three new “satellite campuses” (in Brampton, Milton and Barrie) dedicated to undergraduate teaching only. But their main proposal is a 30% means-tested tuition “grant” for full-time undergraduate students from low- and middle-income families (those with combined parental income of under $160,000 per year) who also have dependent status. The OLP would also double the length of the bachelor of education program to two years, increase the student loan repayment “grace period” for students who take on jobs at non-profit organizations, and maintain the Ontario Student Opportunities Grant and yearly cap on OSAP debt amounts.

Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario: The PCPO released their platform in May 2011. Leader Tim Hudak has said that OSAP would be expanded to allow access to more “middle-class students”, i.e. that restrictions on eligibility for loans would be changed. This expansion would be funded by the elimination of the new Trillium Scholarships for doctoral students, which were designed to lure international talent to Ontario. Hudak called the program “unfair” and “out-of-touch.” One interesting thing about this approach is that it’s well out of line with what the federal Tories have done by creating newer, larger fellowships that are available to “elite” international students. The PCPO also plans to create “up to 60,000 new post-secondary spaces,” which is almost identical to the Liberals’ plan for continued expansion. Since they have made no comments about tuition, my guess is that tuition will continue to increase, and students would be more likely to require OSAP funds from the government.

Undergraduate accessibility is the focus for three of the four major parties in the Ontario election. The Liberal and NDP platforms, and to some extent that of the Green Party, are designed to address the up-front costs of postsecondary education through non-repayable student assistance, and to limit debt through changes to OSAP. A significant point of difference is that the Liberal approach could be described as “targeted” while the NDP policy aims to offer a smaller reduction to a larger number of students (i.e. non-needs-based reduction). A tuition freeze would affect all non-international university and college students, while the OLP grant would funnel larger amounts (bigger reductions) to fewer students by narrowing the criteria for eligibility. There are drawbacks and benefits to both approaches.

The same kinds of caveats apply to enrolment increases and satellite campuses. The new campuses proposed by the OLP could be seen as addressing the geographic aspect of accessibility by bridging the distance for students in areas further from larger central campuses, they also present the possibility of further stratification within the system given that teaching is not valued as much as research in academic careers. “Competition” between universities for new student spaces could exacerbate this effect.

Of course not all policy players agree that these proposals follow the appropriate logic. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates has criticized the Liberal plan as over-complicated and difficult to implement, while accusing the CFS of advocating “Tea Party” style policies (i.e. tuition freezes) that reduce costs for the most privileged students as well as the neediest. Usher seems to take the view that tuition increases don’t negatively affect accessibility because enrolment numbers have not decreased in Ontario, in spite of increased tuition. This is a narrow view of accessibility that takes into account only the number of students participating. I would argue that accessibility should include reducing high tuition and large debt burdens that disproportionately affect under-privileged students and create financial strain during their studies and in post-graduation life.

In any case, I think it’s positive that there is such a strong focus on PSE funding in this election and that three of the parties have produced platforms involving decreased costs for students; this is becoming more important given that more young people’s lives are being affected by these costs.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. JoVE / September 27, 2011 at 09:53

    Of course everyone seems to agree that we need more places and that education is a private good that justifies private debt. That was to be expected.

    Also, since $160,000 combined parental income is about double the median household income for couple households, even the Liberal policy is pretty broad based, capturing a pretty big chunk of the “middle” I suspect.

  2. Melonie Fullick / September 30, 2011 at 07:12

    Hi Jo–I agree that continued expansion is the trend that everyone seems to be following. I didn’t comment on this partly because of lack of space 😉 But I think it needs to be questioned. We need to ask what a 4-year degree is providing for people and why we’re making it into a prerequisite for the workforce (will we even have the stats available to know if this strategy is “working”?). And it’s happening not only in Canada but in many other countries as well, I wrote a blog post on this a while back [].

    There’s a double assumption, that university has significant economic benefits both for the individual and for society–in policy arguments it’s “equity” and “economics” rolled into one. That’s one reason why I argue that huge debtloads should be considered as a factor in accessibility; if you’re going to tout the massive individual financial gains to be made, then consider also that debt inhibits post-graduation possibilities.

    There’s also the assumption of course that universities designed/intended for this function (an economic one), or at least that they now should be. The more money we’re all sinking into the universities, the stronger that assumption becomes.

    The Liberal plan I think covers the same expansion of financial aid to middle-income families that Hudak seems to be aiming for, except that it provides some non-repayable assistance instead of just more loans. The one question I have is about whether 30% includes the amount added through new tuition increases. Will it be 30% of next year’s tuition, or will it be this $1600 amount that everyone is tossing around? If it’s a percentage, it should increase as tuition increases (ie 30% of 5,500 is more than 30% of 5,000).

  3. Alex Usher / October 12, 2011 at 20:05

    As I understand it, the 30% will increase as tuition increases and the $1600 was for illustrative purposes.

    My comments don’t just take raw numbers into account – they also reflect the social composition of demand. And no province does better on getting low-income students into PSE than Ontario, which is why I don’t think major expenditures like this are going to achieve very much: even with relatively high net tuition, Ontario is way out in front of everyone else – so money can’t really be playing a role here.

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