A public education system is based on the idea that access to education should not be dictated by financial means. The elementary and separate school systems in Ontario are publicly funded, and are available to any resident regardless of their family’s income. In theory, the post-secondary school system is also publicly funded in Ontario; in practice, however, many of Ontario’s universities have effectively become privately funded institutions, financed by Ontario’s youth.
According to the University of Toronto’s 2013 Operating Budget, students are paying 53 per cent of the university’s operating costs — 44 per cent through tuition fees and nine per cent through ancillary fees. Ontario government funding, on the other hand, covers only 34 per cent of the university’s operating budget. With students paying nearly 20 per cent more than the Ontario government, and more than half of its overall budget, is the University of Toronto truly a publicly funded institution
Just three years ago, the University of Toronto’s revenue from government funding was higher than tuition fees. Students are paying far too much, replacing lost funds for a government that has shirked its responsibility to its youth. By the end of the new Ontario post-secondary funding framework — which includes tuition increases of three to five per cent each year — tuition fees in Ontario will have more than doubled in just eight years. Ontario students have the lowest per-student funding in the country at $10,390 per student compared to more than $25,000 per student in Alberta.
So what does all this mean for the students of Ontario?
At the University of Toronto, chronic underfunding has led the university administration to make risky investments, like using public money to gamble in the stock market for additional revenue. In 2008, the University of Toronto reported that it had lost $1.3 billion, a reduction of 30 per cent in the school’s pension and endowment funds. The university then introduced “Flat Fees” — a tuition fee scheme that forces students to pay for five courses even when they might take only three or four. Students also endure high incidental fees, and class sizes are on the rise. What’s more troubling is that average student debt in Ontario from both public and private sources is now approximately $37,000 after a four-year undergraduate degree. The average student loan debt in the United States of America is $26,600 — the system has gotten to the point where Ontario student loan borrowers are worse off than our notoriously debt-ridden peers to the south.
Perhaps the most infuriating part about the dismantling of our education system is that Ontarians did not vote for this to happen. The Liberal government has quietly and systematically sold off our education by decreasing public revenue through corporate tax cuts, and has done so completely by stealth. They have promoted themselves as being pro-public education while failing to inform the public that less public money is going into the “public” education system than user fees. Nobody got to vote on that. If this can be done to our education system, what’s next? Our health care system? Roads? High school? Let’s not forget, the Drummond report recommended to the Government of Ontario the implementation of tuition fees for certain circumstances in Ontario high schools.
We must act now to restore the public post-secondary education system, before it is gone forever and only the wealthy can purchase a degree. Financial barriers are preventing too many bright minds from attending college or university. The University of Toronto Students’ Union wants to see our government keep our post-secondary education public by increasing funding, reducing tuition fees, and doing what they can to curb our student debt crisis. We represent students and their families. We are frustrated with the government’s impunity. We want a government that will work with us to save what is vital to our society: publicly funded education that is accessible to everyone.
Munib Sajjad is the President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.