Ontario Tories call for post-secondary reforms

Student loans for high grades and funding dependent on job placement among changes floated by white paper

A new white paper from Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party, which calls for the abolishment of the Liberal’s 30 per cent tuition grant and proposes tying student loans to grades and funding to job placement rates, drew swift criticism from Liberal ministers and student unions, who say the policies would leave low- and middle-income families at a disadvantage.

The suggestion that loans be tied to student grades drew a particularly sharp rebuke. For Munib Sajjad, vice-president, university affairs at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (utsu), the proposal “is an offensive way of further disadvantaging low-income students, as unexpected circumstances, illnesses, and family emergencies affect low-income students more than their counterparts.”

“The whole idea smacks of a two-tier approach to post-secondary education,” said Brad Duguid, the newly-appointed Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities. Duguid says the proposal will disproportionately harm student-athletes, part-time workers, and Aboriginal students.

There was also debate about how best to address the future of a tuition grant introduced by the Liberals last year. Rob Leone, the PC critic for Training, Colleges and Universities, said the 30 per cent grant was “an abject failure” unavailable to the neediest, such as mature and part-time students.

The Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O) has also been critical of the grant’s narrow eligibility requirements in the past. The Liberals, meanwhile, have previously suggested that the eligibility guidelines could be revisited.

The CFS was also critical of several other measures within the 27-page Conservative proposal, identifying more stringent surveillance for OSAP funding and expanded online education as particularly troublesome. CFS national executive representative Toby Whitfield said the paper’s proposals amounted to an “attack on low- and middle-income income families.”

Leone said he was surprised by the reaction to the paper, and said it was “offensive” to suggest that scrapping the 30 per cent grant would disadvantage middle-income families. “I also came from a middle-class background. My father did not have a lot growing up. Ultimately, we understand the value of education and working hard. What we are doing is accounting for people with different expectations,” said Leone.

Alongside axing the tuition grant and tying student loans to good grades, the policy paper, one in a series entitled “Paths to Prosperity,” calls for a renewed focus on practical outcomes in higher education, emphasizing college and training facilities, and seeking to tie funding to job placement rates.

Leone said that the province’s resources should be funnelled to programs that are better at securing jobs for graduates, and expressed concern that many university programs were accepting too many students when prospects within the field remain bleak, citing journalism school and teachers’ colleges as two examples.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is focus our scarce resources into making sure students get good jobs and are able to afford a good lifestyle, where they can buy a car, get a house, have kids,” said Leone.

The Liberals are also seeking a renewed emphasis on colleges, one of few instances where the two major parties’ policies agree. Duguid says the skilled trades need to be promoted more intensively, adding that the ministry has begun developing plans to promote college education and facilitate more joint programs between universities and colleges.

“What I have trouble with,” said Duguid, “is [PC party leader Tim] Hudak making the choice for students to go into colleges or skilled trades. Who’s Tim Hudak to say that you should go into skilled trades? It is almost paternalistic.”

The CFS and UTSU have also expressed concern  about the Tories’ approach to online education, suggesting that having more expensive “elite” programs within bricks-and-mortar university campuses, while offering lower tuition rates for online learning would widen the inequality gap between wealthy and lower-income students.

Alongside these more controversial proposals, the Tories also called for lower student-to-faculty ratios and smaller class sizes, both of which are priority issues for student unions.

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