Last summer, the Ontario Liberal government released a widely criticized discussion paper addressing the future of post-secondary education (PSE) in the province. Almost a year ago — in a rare show of campus unity — faculty, administration, and student leaders came together to critique the proposal at a town hall organized by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).
The Varsity was among those criticizing the lack of foresight and blatant financial motives of the discussion paper entitled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge.”
In the year that has passed since that town hall, the discussion paper has mercifully faded from the scene — while the faces involved in the discussion of provincial PSE have changed. Premier Kathleen Wynne, a former minister of education, has replaced Dalton McGuinty. University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) alumnus Brad Duguid has taken over for Glen Murray as Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU). Cheryl Misak, who spoke for the administration at the town hall, has been succeeded as U of T’s provost by former vice-provost, academic, Cheryl Regehr. U of T president David Naylor, who presented the university’s strongly worded response arguing for U of T’s special place in Ontario’s PSE landscape, is set to give way to Meric Gertler, former dean of Arts & Science.
New faces have not, however, brought with them a new plan. One of Duguid’s first acts as TCU minister was to meet with the St. George Round Table, a group composed of the heads of various college governments at U of T. In a candid moment, Duguid admitted that the Wynne government had not yet decided what form PSE policy would take. There would be a policy, he promised — it would just take time.
Duguid and the Wynne government have now had eight months to formulate their PSE strategy, but students and university administrators across the province have yet to hear it. In the meantime, the Progressive Conservative (PC) opposition under Tim Hudak has released its own white paper, an ideological polemic that would remove tuition limits from elite research universities and tie financial aid to academic performance. While the PC’s plan may be even worse than the Liberal’s last attempt, the lack of a counter-proposal from the new Liberal government is worrying.
The academic landscape has not waited for Duguid and his ministry to make up their minds. Access Copyright, ancillary fees, academic freedom and research funding, flat fees, online education — all are more prominent issues now than they were when Duguid took over from Murray in February of this year.
Unfortunately, in the eight months since the government promised a plan, little has been accomplished. Duguid announced that tuition increases would be capped at three per cent, a compromise between universities’ demands for a five per cent limit and calls from student leaders to halt further increases. While that move came as a disappointment to many, it was more conciliatory than might have been expected. At least the minister showed that he understands the need to balance the high cost of an education with the need of universities to fund themselves. At the time, Duguid also promised to change tuition payment timelines to ensure that students who receive OSAP or other forms of financial aid would no longer be forced to pay interest on late tuition payments simply because their assistance did not arrive in time. The minister repeated on Thursday that he thinks the interest is unfair, after UTSU director Ben Coleman’s recent research showed that U of T students continue to pay those penalties. This time, Duguid told us to expect policy change by December, which may sound familiar to those who remember last April.
In an interview with The Varsity last month, the minister also promised to look into the issue of flat fees, a controversial policy under which U of T charges students for five full-course equivalent (FCE) credits if they take any more than two FCEs in a given academic year. Duguid said he was convinced that flat fees should be reviewed after meeting with representatives of the UTSU and Canadian Federation of Students. While welcome, Duguid’s announcement was decidedly short on specifics. It also failed to address the reality that students in certain professional programs actually benefit from a flat-fee system, as student leaders from the Faculty of Engineering have often pointed out.
Last February, student leaders revealed that U of T had charged ancillary fees that violated the province’s regulations. While U of T conceded on some points and discontinued a few fees, the bulk of the issue has not been settled. U of T and several students’ unions are still at odds over whether a long list of fees are legal. U of T has not offered to refund students, even for the fees that it admits should not have been charged. The number of ancillary fees has actually increased, most notably in the Faculty of Music. Meanwhile, the ministry in charge of regulating these fees has had almost nothing to say.
On a number of other PSE issues that require government action, Wynne’s Liberals have stayed frustratingly quiet. U of T’s arrangement with Coursera, an educational technology company offering open online courses, has produced decidedly mixed results. Provincial research funding has been falling for years, while the federal government has started offering grants with strings attached. Issues created by previous Liberal governments, like the gutting of the work-study program and the limited eligibility for McGuinty’s 30 per cent tuition grant, have also gone unconsidered.
Consultation, we are told, is the key to Wynne’s political style, and Duguid has implemented his boss’ mantra to good effect. As minister, he has met with student groups and representatives across the province and on multiple campuses. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and the urge to consult with everyone has turned into a shield for the Liberals to hide behind. The party’s new “Common Ground” website campaign seeks to crowdsource ideas from Ontarians in developing its policy platform, with the promise that suggestions from the public will be considered for an impending election. If the Liberals are hoping to gain support by saying the right things and doing nothing, we hope that students will prove their strategy wrong. Students may be convinced to vote for a party which does good things for PSE, but not for a party that promises good things and fails to deliver.
Duguid recently took to Twitter to declare his pride that U of T is number one in Canada on the QS world university rankings. If the minister and the Wynne government want this university, and Ontario’s other post-secondary institutions, to maintain their reputations, they need to address these issues. Talk is cheap, and we are tired of waiting.