Kathleen Wynne, one of seven candidates in the race for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal party, released her platform for post-secondary education in the province last Thursday.
Wynne’s plan includes the creation of a youth advisory council and the retention of the 30 per cent tuition grant, and pledges to try to “bridge the gap” between the labour market and the labour force, and create more flexibility and mobility between post-secondary institutions.
“Together with our partners, we’ve made significant strides in improving the quality of and access to post-secondary education in Ontario. We now have the highest overall participation rate in universities in the world,” said Wynne.
In an exclusive interview with The Varsity, Wynne said that a major component of her plan includes the creation of the Premier’s Youth Advisory Council. The council — which would include students from both universities and colleges, as well as young people who are not enrolled in post-secondary education but are involved in youth activities — would meet with the premier on a regular basis to discuss important youth issues.
“I want to get young people from a variety of backgrounds. Not just students who are in post-secondary,” said Wynne, “but young people who are trying to find their way and have something to offer.”
Wynne said that maintaining “ongoing conversations with people who are front-line or involved in youth activities and staying in touch with what youth are feeling is really very important.”
“I want to foster that discussion directly between the premier and the students,” she said.
She described the council as being a dynamic group of people who could inform policy. “It’s not a decision making body. It’s an opportunity for the premier to have an ongoing conversation with young people that is necessary for informed decision making.”
Jonathan Scott, president of the University of Toronto Liberals, also emphasized the benefits of the proposed council. “This will bring a formal consultative and consistent channel for students to have the ear of the premier. It will help ensure that student ideas can be shared without the need to resort to acrimony.”
Wynne’s plan also affirms her intention to keep the 30 per cent tuition grant in place, which she described as “a big commitment in a time of restraint.” In order to qualify for the grant, which was introduced in February 2012 by former minister Glen Murray (now one of Wynne’s competitors in the leadership race), students must be enrolled full-time in programs that can be entered directly after high school. They must also have a family income of less than $160,000 and have graduated high school in the past four years.
“I know that some of organizations have expressed some concerns and I’m quite prepared to sit down with them,” Wynne acknowledges. “I’m very interested in an ongoing dialogue and that’s part of the reason I want to set up the advisory council.”
In response to some of the concerns raised by lobby groups such as the Canadian Federation of Students, Wynne indicated that while she is not prepared to commit to specific changes to the program at this point, she is interested in making sure that it is working in the way that it was intended to and providing the access that was promised.
Another part of Wynne’s plan for post-secondary education is creating more flexibility and mobility within the system, a goal that was also featured prominently in the province’s contentious discussion paper released last summer.
“I think we need to have more portability, more flexibility within the system so we ensure that if a young person, or someone who is coming back into school, gets on a track and they take a certain number or credits that if they change their mind they are able to take the next step to do the next thing they want to do,” said Wynne.
Wynne also expressed concern about a perceived skills gap, referring to the disparity between what university graduates have studied and qualifications and backgrounds sought by prospective employers. “I believe that right now we have a labour market and labour force that don’t necessarily match,” said Wynne. “I want to make sure that we have enough opportunities for young people, either when they graduate from high school or when they graduate from their first degree or diploma from university or college.”
Wynne says she wants to ensure that students have an opportunity to experience different career paths and that they can “find an internship, or a co-op placement, or something that will allow them to experience a particular career path and decide if that’s what they want to do, or even decide that it’s not what they want to do.”
Wynne declined to comment directly on Murray’s proposal to implement a policy of no upfront tuition for post-secondary school.
“We’re all Liberals so we all believe strongly in education. We believe that education is the cornerstone of our democracy and we all believe strongly in post-secondary,” said Wynne. “I think that all of the ideas that are being put forward by the seven candidates need to be looked at. We’re one party and I think that one of the advantages of the leadership is that we can synthesize those ideas.”
Scott said that a majority of the U of T Liberal executive, including himself, are supporting Wynne.
“I’m supporting Kathleen Wynne because of her character and her progressive principles. I’m also supporting her because I know she can win a general election.”
Scott added, “If there’s anyone who can both repair the Ontario Liberals’ relationship with the teachers and bring in the spending restraints the province needs, it’s Kathleen Wynne. Her leadership is calm, conciliatory and consistent.”
Wynne concluded, “I think what positions me uniquely is that I’m really good at bringing people together and I’m really good at helping people sort through ideas and then solving the problems as they present themselves so I’m excited about the opportunity to do that.
“I think that my platform compliments and supplements what the other candidates have put forward so as the premier what I would like to do is draw on all of those ideas and the other candidates will be an important part of that process come January 28.”
The Ontario Liberal Leadership election to replace Dalton McGuinty will take place at Maple Leaf Gardens on January 25, 26, and 27. The winner, in addition to becoming the leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario, will also become the Premier of Ontario as the Liberals form the current Ontario government.