Students and opposition MPPs gathered a day after the legislature began its holiday break to send a message to the Conservative government—deregulated tuition fees will irreparably damage colleges and universities.
Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Dianne Cunningham admitted in December that the government has considered granting Queen’s University the right to deregulate tuition fees on all programs. Critics, who have long been calling for a tuition freeze, say this would have a domino effect in the province and cause other schools to follow suit.
“Deregulating tuition fees will be an unmitigated disaster for the post-secondary education,” says Joel Duff, president of the Canadian Federation of Students. “We can already see low income Ontarians losing access. The gap between the rich and poor has increased and the government has allowed fees to increase exponentially…we’re calling on the government to reject the Queen’s proposal.”
Students from Queen’s, the University of Toronto, Western Ontario and George Brown College attended the press conference to send a message to their government that this is an unacceptable move. Last spring, students at Queen’s had a referendum on the topic of deregulation, and 91 per cent were opposed.
“I would call upon the universities who are defining themselves as great to do something great and say no, because I think greatness is more about integrity and character than how much money you can amass as an institution,” said Rebecca Jaremko-Bromwich, a student from Queen’s. But the University of Toronto is jumping right on board. The Bulletin, the administration’s newspaper, quoted Vice President of Government and Institutional Relations Sheldon Levy as saying, “There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be one of the best universities in the world…but that aspiration costs money.”
U of T administration is calling for “more flexibility” in tuition fee levels for regulated programs. Critics strongly believe this “flexibility” will cost Canadians their access to education. “One of the things that concerns me is that the plan to introduce needs-based scholarships will be used as a mechanism to justify and to allow deregulation of arts and science students, and I’m very concerned with that,” said University of Toronto Student Administrative Council president Alex Kerner.
Peter Kormos, NDP Justice and Poverty critic, said that deregulated tuition fees will specifically hurt immigrant families.
“I’m from the first generation of an immigrant family whose
children were able to go to college and university,” says Kormos. “I fear that many immigrant families now will be sending their last generation to attend college and university.”
Kormos says students are bearing too much of the burden when it comes to covering the cost of education.
“A student pays 32 per cent of the total cost of their education,” he says. “We, as a province, have to make some hard choices about whether we want to accept and support public education.”
He also says this fight comes at an important time, while the Conservatives are trying to decide on a new leader to replace out-going Premier Mike Harris.
“This is a leadership issue,” says Kormos. “It will affect who young Tories vote for.”
Liberal education critic Marie Bountrogianni says she understands why Queen’s is asking for deregulated tuition but can’t support it. She says the government is forcing students and universities into a corner.
“There isn’t an evil ulterior motive on the part of universities,” she said. “They’re simply under-funded and they need the money.”
Bountrogianni says she has benefited greatly from the public education system and to deregulate tuition now would be a problem that is “hard to unscramble.”
“If this government deregulates tuition, I would consider that nothing short of generational warfare,” said Bountrogianni.
“I would never have received three degrees if tuition had been that high. It would be unprecedented.”
She also warns that the government may be making decisions that will ultimately hurt the province’s economy.
“These student’s stories are very compelling,” says Bountrogianni. “I personally know a medical student who owes $150,000. It will take him years to start making any money to pay back these loans. We have no idea how that kind of debt will effect the economy.”
Erin McCloskey, a student from the University of Western Ontario, says deregulated tuition would be just another broken Tory promise.
“When this government was elected, they said that no student should have to pay for more than 25 per cent of their education. Then they changed that number to 35 per cent,” says McCloskey. “Deregulating tuition won’t even allow them to keep that promise.”
College students, such as Denise Hammond from Toronto’s George Brown College, are saying that this move could hurt the workforce in the long term.
“I already have an enormous debt because of university. If they’re encouraging people to go to college, get skills, and get trained because they want to improve the workforce, then how are we possibly going to be able to access it?”