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In conversation with Deb Matthews

Matthews, speaking at U of T in July 2016. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

In conversation with Deb Matthews

Ontario's Deputy Premier and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development on tuition, innovation, Jordan Peterson

Deb Matthews is the Deputy Premier of Ontario and the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development. In her capacity as a minister, she oversees provincial policy, regulation, and strategy regarding postsecondary institutions in Ontario. The Varsity had a chance to sit down with her to discuss tuition fees, innovation, and the role of universities in inclusivity and free speech.

The Varsity: On November 3, hundreds of students with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) rallied in front of Queen’s Park, calling on the government to eliminate tuition fees. How would you respond to those sorts of concerns?

Matthews: So I totally agree with CFS that money should never be a barrier to secondary education. And that’s exactly why we brought in a massive change to OSAP. We’re totally transforming OSAP so that we’re actually removing the financial barriers for students. Our changes mean that that 150,000 students will actually get grants — not loans, grants — in excess of their tuition. OSAP will provide support for students from families with family incomes of up to $160,000. But, the less you earn, the more the support. Highly progressive, so at $50,000 family income [and less students]… will have their tuition covered with grants, so free tuition.

TV: Just to clarify: when you talk about the changes to OSAP, do you mean the Ontario Student Grant, as it’s also known?

Matthews: Yes, but it’s all OSAP, so student aid. Ontario Student Grant is a part of that.

TV: So in terms of this change to OSAP or the student grants, is this sort of the long term solution for post-secondary education costs, or are you looking to make any sort of changes in the future to better accommodate students.

Matthews: So this is hugely transformational from a societal point of view. In sum, it just has a huge impact on social mobility when students are going to be able to go on and educate their potential. So implementing this is our big focus right now. We’re also of course looking at the tuition framework. We’re looking at the funding formula for college and universities so there’s a lot of other work going on. But in terms of accessibility these changes are truly transformational.

We’re also going to make it a lot easier for students in high school and elementary school and their families to understand the true cost of postsecondary education. My worry is that if focus is just on tuition without looking at student aid, people get a distorted idea of what postsecondary costs, and that really discourages them from even thinking about postsecondary education. So for me, it’s all about net tuition, how much [is] the tuition, and how much aid are you going to get, and then you’ve got the information you need to make an informed decision.

TV: To continue on that line, what solutions would be offered to international students and those in deregulated programs like commerce programs or computer science, as an example. How can they be assisted as well?

Matthews: So international students is a big issue for us and we’re actually working at developing an international student strategy. We really think that international students enrich the experience but I think we have to do a better job of really supporting international students and fully integrating them into our postsecondary system. So there’s work underway on that front right now.

TV: What about the deregulated programs?

Matthews: So, are you familiar with the Student Access [Guarantee]?

TV: No, but you can tell me about it.

Matthews: I didn’t know this existed before I became Minister, so I guess it’s not that well known. You didn’t know about it. I didn’t know about it, but every institution is required to support low-income students in those high cost programs, so if you want to go into engineering and that tuition is above normal tuition, then the institution is required to top up your student assistance to cover the increased cost of tuition of those high-cost programs. So that’s extremely helpful, but not well known. So, part of what we’re doing in our transformation with OSAP is we’re trying to make it as seamless as possible so that students actually will get that information up front.

TV: Currently, tuition increases in Ontario are capped at three per cent. This is set to expire in 2017. What is the Ontario government looking to prioritize in their next sort of decision on how to deal with those?

Matthews: Yeah. They are coming up for renewal, so that work is underway, and we haven’t yet landed on what that next iteration is going to be, but it’s very high on our to do list.

[pullquote-default]”We’re in the middle of what some call the fourth Industrial Revolution, and we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t actually change education to reflect the changes in the economy.”[/pullquote-default]

TV: I’d like to talk a little bit about innovation universities and postsecondary institutions. What does meaningful innovation look like in a post-secondary institution? And who is it supposed to benefit?

Matthews: So that’s a great question, and for me, it will always be about benefiting students. Universities are there to serve students, and they’re also there to do research and spread knowledge, so there’s so many ways that innovation is being demonstrated. We’re seeing more and more universities and colleges embracing different ways of teaching, we’re learning more about how people learn, and how people learn today in the digital world.

So there’s innovation out on teaching. But there’s also — I don’t know if you had a chance to see the highly skilled workforce report… it’s a pretty interesting document. The Premier asked an expert panel to come forth with advice on how we actually create the highly skilled workforce that we need for today and tomorrow.

A really interesting statistic I heard was that educators were asked how well [students] were doing as for the workforce. And I think 83 per cent of them said they were doing just fine. If you ask employers it’s more like 34 per cent of employers thought students were being well-prepared. So we really have to do a better job bringing those educators and businesses together. And other employers like NGOs and so on to actually make sure the students are getting the skills they need to be successful. So they have a number of recommendations and we’re committed to moving on all of them.

One of the most interesting ones for me, at least, is work-integrated learning. So we’re setting ourselves a target that every student graduating from high school, and again, when they graduate from college or university will have had at least one meaningful work-integrated learning experience. So, you know, co-ops are kind of one end of the spectrum. But there are a lot of options that we’re working on how we’re actually operationalizing that. So, how are we defining a meaningful work-integrated learning experience, and how we’re going to support it? It’s a big, big job, but I’m really excited. I think we’re going to be able to do it.

TV: Following up on that: with innovations, especially at universities, there’s lots of partnerships. As beneficial as they could be, do you feel like there is also any risk that outside institutions like corporations could have too much influence on what are meant to be public institutions?

Matthews: Yeah, of course. That’s always a concern, and we can never lose sight of the fact that these are public institutions and their mandate to serve the broader public. And at the same time, we live in a time where the economy is rapidly changing. We’re in the middle of what some call the fourth Industrial Revolution, and we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t actually change education to reflect the changes in the economy.

TV: So what does that entail? How is that managed? How do we keep that beneficial and not detrimental?

Matthews: You know, I think this is a very big conversation. And I think it’s important that we have that debate and I know that universities in particular are having that conversation. And it’s a healthy one but I think if you ask students, ‘do you value being well prepared for the work you’re going to do?’ they will say ‘absolutely, yes’. Students put a very high premium on having an education that’s going to help them once they graduate.

[pullquote-features]”I believe that all of us need to work to create inclusive places, inclusive environments, and that means being thoughtful, and being generous of spirit.”[/pullquote-features]

TV: I have one final question. At U of T, Professor Jordan Peterson has made some headlines for refusing to use non-binary gender pronouns… These comments have upset some students, and in such a situation how can a school manage student grievances and at the same time uphold academic freedom?

Matthews: This is a really tough issue. I believe that all of us need to work to create inclusive places, inclusive environments, and that means being thoughtful, and being generous of spirit. And by that I mean, I think there has to be a welcoming place for everyone on our campus. Having said that, I know this is being dealt with where it belongs and that is at the university level so that’s where it needs to be.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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