As some warn that we could see depression-level unemployment in the near future, the Ontario Progressive Conservative white paper, “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs,” has brought new and controversial ideas to the table. The white paper, which was released this February by PC leader Tim Hudak and his Training, Colleges and Universities critic Dr. Rob Leone, presents a strategy for tertiary education in Ontario that would create a far more differentiated system. There would be an elite tier of research universities not subject to tuition regulating. This teir would be in addition to teaching-focused universities, applied institutes, career colleges, and training and apprenticeship programs. Hudak and Leone also suggest that Ontario should adopt a ‘learn to earn’ strategy, tying financial aid to academic performance. All of this would fall under a new ‘college first’ approach to Ontario post-secondary education.
The Ontario PC’s perspective on the social and economic value of post-secondary education in Ontario and their proposals for creating a more cost-effective system are flawed for several reasons. For starters, their numbers are suspect. While the Progressive Conservatives have claimed that one-third of new university graduates are not employed full-time in a career related to their field of study within two yearsof graduation, Rob Ferguson of the Toronto Star indicates that 78 per cent of that demographic are employed full-time, and 94 per cent are working in some capacity. If the latter set of statistics is more accurate, it raises questions about whether there is really a driving need to create a more effective system that educates our students cheaper and faster and plugs them into jobs to feed the economy more quickly. Ferguson’s statistic would suggest that Ontarians are generally well-served by our existing mix of training institutions, colleges and universities, and merely need the government to focus improving access for students and ensure sustainable public investment in our schools.
It is certainly not clear that the proposed achievement-based financial aid system would achieve the access, retention, and success goals that Hudak and Leone claim to be setting. In reality, this model would be intrinsically prejudicial towards middle- and low-income students. The impact of this financial aid system would be to force students with less means to meet higher academic standards than their more wealthy peers in order to access to higher education. Students who could pay tuition independently would only have to meet admission requirements, while students seeking financial aid would have to meet both the standards for admission and the standards for aid. Disguised in the language of rewarding merit, this plan would create a two-tier system that is structurally unfair to lower-income students.
That is only one of the challenges that lower-income students can face. Many students must work in addition to going to school, and therefore struggle academically in ways that their peers who can concentrate soley on their studies may not. Others may have to deal with difficult family situations or other accessibility barriers. The so-called merit-based system would effectively punish students facing such challenges.
For those whose education is not paid for by their parents or through other forms of financial aid including scholarships, the Hudak and Leone plan offers fewer options for covering the cost of attending university. Programs like the Ontario 30 per cent tuition grant, which is need blind, are lambasted for not being accessible enough to groups such as single parents returning to school. However, the pcs do not offer alternative options for those students who do not measure up to their “qualified” standard. For those students with few means, the propositions made by the Progressive Conservatives are an issue of serious concern.
Then there is the PC proposal for a ‘college first’ strategy, an effort to position Ontario’s colleges as the first choice for new students entering post-secondary education. The province has some well reputable colleges, but just as university is not for everyone, neither is college. Students and their families should have the benefit of open options for their education after high school. Bonnie Patterson, the president and ceo of the Council of Ontario Universities, had this to say on the predominance of one educational path over another: “Any form of post-secondary education is important. Canada relies on an educated population to be globally competitive and unleash the full potential of the Canadian economy. Students should decide which path is right for them — if they are at their best then Ontario is at its best.”
Ontario’s post-secondary educational system should be about balanced options, not defined paths. No government should play an active role in determining educational and career paths for its citizens; instead, it should do what it can to ensure quality education, inform the populous about their options, and minimize the barriers inherent to all who wish to expand their minds and skills, regardless of the required education.
Alec Wilson studies political science and American studies.