Ontario’s education system has witnessed significant changes in the last four years under the leadership of the province’s current premier, Doug Ford, and his Progressive Conservative (PC) government.
With the result of June 2 provincial elections a second majority government for Ford and the PC Party, The Varsity reviewed Ford’s first term as premier — in regard to the changes made to postsecondary institutions — and also looked at his campaign promises for reelection.
2018 election campaign
Ford proposed a plan to safeguard free speech on postsecondary campuses in Ontario during his 2018 campaign. He pledged to develop a process of investigating violations of free speech and creating an avenue to process complaints through the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).
On August 30, 2018 — approximately three months after winning a majority government — Ford’s administration announced a mandate requiring publicly assisted colleges and universities in Ontario to establish and implement a free-speech policy. The mandate also requires postsecondary institutions to submit an annual report on the progress of their policies to the HEQCO for evaluation.
The provincial government could reduce funding to any school found violating the mandate.
“Our government made a commitment to the people of Ontario to protect free speech on campuses. Promise made, promise kept,” said Ford in the official press release announcing the mandate.
While some supported the policy — claiming that free speech is essential to the diverse and innovative nature of academia — others disagreed. Critics argued that offensive ideas are frequently shared in educational spaces under the guise of free speech.
Although controversial, the policy has remained intact throughout the duration of Ford’s term.
Changes to tuition
In 2019, the impact of Ford’s government on postsecondary institutions began to intensify. On January 17, 2019 the PC Party announced a 10 per cent cut in domestic tuition, which was estimated to cost $360 million and $80 million to universities and colleges, respectively.
The party justified the tuition cut through its estimated calculation of the sum that postsecondary students in Ontario would save. It anticipated an average yearly drop of $876 in undergraduate tuition and $994 in graduate tuition for domestic students.
These changes, however, would not alter tuition for international students.
The same year, the provincial government announced changes to the eligibility criteria for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). As a result, fewer students were eligible for assistance. For those who remained eligible, their student loans — unlike the previous years — would begin accruing interest during the six-month grace period for loan repayment after they have completed their studies.
The announcement was met with extreme controversy, as the new change affected both students and publicly funded postsecondary institutions.
On one hand, some students saw lower tuition as a deceitful way to compensate for cuts to the OSAP budget.
On the other hand, some domestic students believed that the 10 per cent cut would help tackle the issue of tuition affordability.
Student Choice Initiative
The Student Choice Initiative (SCI) — also announced on January 17, 2019 — was another directive which stemmed from Ford’s tuition cuts. The policy gave students the choice to opt out of paying “non-essential” student fees which would include “expenses such as student handbooks, non-student related organizations, or club fees.”
Some students said that the mandate would alleviate the heavy burden of costly tuition. They contended that providing students with this option would democratize tuition fees, ultimately increasing financial autonomy of students.
Others feared the opt-out model’s implications for student unions and campus groups — a staple in college and university communities. They were concerned that, if postsecondary institutions didn’t require students to pay club fees, many groups would lose the funding to actively contribute to student life at their schools.
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) revealed an average opt-out rate of 23.6 per cent for non-essential UTSU fees in its November 2019 Annual General Meeting.
Many student groups on campus rely on the UTSU for funding as their levies are distributed to them by the UTSU. As such, the effect of constrained budgets by the increased opt-out rate was felt by many student groups and associations.
Beyond the budgetary concerns, many student groups felt that the administration had a vendetta against them. The groups claimed that the administration sought to silence the vocal critics it believed student groups to be by limiting the autonomy of such groups.
In May 2019, citing concerns of interference in the relationship between student organizations and universities, the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) and the York Federation of Students (YFS) submitted an application for judicial review of the SCI.
In November 2019, the Divisional Court of Ontario ruled in favour of the CFS–O and the YFS and struck down the initiative.
In December 2019, the provincial government filed an appeal against the ruling in the Ontario Court of Appeal.
The case went to court in March, and in August 2021, the decision to strike down the SCI was upheld.
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ford administration had to find a balance between an effective mode of course delivery and public health safety.
In March 2020, most Ontario postsecondary institutions shut down in-person classes and moved learning online. Although many universities, including U of T, aimed to reopen certain in-person activities for the fall 2020 semester, some students felt that plan might jeopardize public health.
By October 9, 2020, the provincial government implemented further COVID-19 restrictions, prompting postsecondary institutions to stay online.
A study conducted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations found that the shift to online learning had left a vast majority of students upset with the quality of education they were receiving. Mandatory virtual classes resulted in increased feelings of isolation and mental health issues and a negative postsecondary experience.
At the same time, students have highlighted the benefits of an online learning environment. The introduction of breakout rooms allows students in classes with large enrolments to establish connections with other students. Similarly, students are also able to ask their professors questions through the chat function or the raise-hand function in an online environment with relative ease, regardless of class size.
Above all, the shift to online learning was a consequence of public health safety measures.
As the pandemic continued to evolve, the provincial government and postsecondary institutions in Ontario adopted different degrees of protective measures. Postsecondary institutions have maintained their COVID-19 policies for longer.
Despite the Ford administration’s reluctance to adopt a system of COVID-19 vaccine verification, many postsecondary institutions required proof of vaccination for students on campus during the fall 2021 semester.
In October 2021, the provincial government released a plan to gradually reopen Ontario. While provincial mask and vaccine mandates were lifted in March 2022, many Ontario universities announced plans to maintain their mandates. U of T intends for its mask mandate to remain in place until June 30.
2022 election campaign
On March 23, 2022 the PC Party announced an extension of the tuition freeze for college and university students for another year.
The Ford administration first froze tuition in the 2020–2021 academic year, then extended that freeze for the 2021–2022 academic year.
As postsecondary institutions in Ontario have witnessed decreasing domestic tuition fees, they have come to rely more on international tuition fees.
Between the 2016–2017 and the 2019–2020 academic years, postsecondary institutions in Ontario saw an increase of 152 per cent in revenue from international tuition fees and a decrease of three per cent in domestic tuition revenue.
International students in Ontario have long been demanding lower tuition fees, and the pandemic has further exacerbated the already sensitive economic strain of international tuition.
With another year of the domestic tuition freeze, U of T’s Governing Council voted to increase tuition for non-Ontario resident domestic students by three per cent.