Members of the post-secondary education community in Ontario are calling on the provincial government to make a number of important changes to post-secondary education in the upcoming budget. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O), the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), and U of T are all making demands Ontario’s pre-budget consultations, which run until February 28. The consultations are an opportunity for individuals and organizations in Ontario to submit their priorities in advance of the upcoming provincial budget.
The demands include increased funding for post-secondary education, improved post-graduate employment outcomes for undergraduates, and fair graduate expansion allocations. The current Liberal government — which currently has a minority in the legislature — could fall on the budget, which will likely include policies aimed at appealing to voters ahead of an election.
Almost all of the demands boil down to an underfunded post-secondary education sector. According to Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s provost, Ontario currently has the lowest per-student funding in Canada. Regehr would like to see this funding increased in the upcoming provincial budget.
“We understand that there are huge constraints that the province is under,” Regehr noted, referencing the province’s $11 billion deficit. “But at the same time, we are very concerned about meeting the needs of our growing numbers of students.”
“Ontario’s research universities make a disproportionate contribution to the provincial economy,” she continued, “we need to look for government support to help us offer the kind of great education that we do.”
U of T is also calling for graduate expansion allocation that recognizes the different roles of universities in Ontario. A 2009 provincial government plan called for 6,000 new graduate student spaces in Ontario by 2016, but the report did not specify how the spaces would be allocated among universities.
Michelle Johnston, a legislative assistant/issues manager with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU), brushed off concerns over post-secondary underfunding. “Despite challenging economic times, the government is continuing to build on its investments in the post-secondary sector to ensure that students, colleges, and universities have the resources they need,” she said.
However, Johnston declined to comment on specific elements of the upcoming budget. “We are unable to comment on what decisions the government will make in the future,” she noted.
According to Johnston, the provincial government’s operating grant to universities increased by $1.58 billion — or 83 per cent — from 2002–2003 to 2012–2013. Specifically, per-student funding for universities increased from $6,719 in 2002–2003 to $8,605 by the end of 2012–2013 — an increase of 28 per cent.
“This confirms the government’s commitment to maintaining and enhancing the quality of education while maximizing the value from each taxpayer dollar,” Johnston noted.
Alastair Woods, chairperson of the CFS-O, feels that the level of provincial funding for post-secondary education is still too low. “With increased funding, we can reduce financial barriers for students while also focusing on increasing the quality of education we receive,” he said.
The CFS-O is also calling for a 30 per cent tuition fee reduction over three years, by repurposing money set aside for the Ontario Tuition Grant and education tax credits. Under the Ontario Tuition Grant, full-time post-secondary students may be eligible for 30 per cent off tuition if they are approved for OSAP, among a number of other conditions. The CFS-O opposes the Ontario Tuition Grant, noting that less than a third of students have accessed it.
Under the CFS-O’s proposed tuition fee reduction, the first year is cost-neutral, and will see a 17 per cent tuition fee reduction after re-allocating funds dedicated to the Ontario Tuition Grant and provincial education tax credits. The second and third years will cost $550 million, for a further 6.5 per cent tuition fee reduction per year.
The CFS-O has successfully influenced provincial education policy in the past — most recently, in the provincial government’s changes to flat fees. However, the provincial government has consistently pushed back against tuition fee reductions. In 2013, Brad Duguid, TCU minister, released a tuition fee policy framework that allows Ontario universities to increase tuition fees by three per cent per year for the next four years — a reduction from previous five per cent increases. Since 2006, tuition fees have increased by as much as 71 per cent in Ontario, according to the CFS-O.
Like the CFS-O, the OUSA is calling on the provincial government to reallocate tuition and education tax credit funding towards improvements to existing financial assistance programs. According to Chris Fernlund, vice-president of university affairs with OUSA, only one in three students earn enough money to make use of the government’s education tax credits while pursuing their degree.
Johnston affirmed the provincial government’s commitment to equitable access to post-secondary education. However, she declined comment on upcoming funding initiatives from the provincial government.
“Helping Ontario students with their costs is part of the government’s plan to keep post-secondary education within the reach of all families, while building the best-educated workforce in the world,” Johnston noted. More than 370,000 students — half of all full-time post-secondary students in Ontario — received student financial aid during the 2012-2013 academic year.
Both the OUSA and CFS-O are also calling for changes in the labour market. The CFS-O wants the province to collect statistics on unpaid internships and end unpaid work terms in the public sector, while the OUSA wants the province to assist in increasing paid co-operative education opportunities for undergraduates.
“OUSA is asking the province to provide funding that will encourage the expansion of paid co-op opportunities in non-traditional programs in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and sciences,” Fernlund said. Fernlund noted that students who participate in co-operative programs had higher post-graduation employment outcomes than other students, and make $2-3 more per hour upon graduation.
Johnston addressed student concerns over unpaid internships. “The fact that a young employee is called an ‘intern’ by someone they work for does not mean that he or she is not an employee for purposes of the Employment Standards Act,” she noted. “The Ministry of Labour is always reaching out to employees and employers to make sure that they are aware of their rights and responsibilities under the Employment Standards Act.”
U of T is also calling on the provincial government to expand funding for post-secondary entrepreneurship and experiential learning opportunities. U of T currently has a number of entrepreneurship opportunities such as campus-run accelerators, and experiential learning opportunities, such as co-operative opportunities and service learning.
Johnston pointed to the government’s Youth Jobs Strategy — a program designed to help youth find jobs or start their own businesses — as evidence of its commitment to providing employment opportunities for youth. The strategy included four funds aimed at generating employment opportunities for youth. One fund, the Ontario Youth Entrepreneurship Fund, provided $45 million to connect young people with mentorship and seed capital to start their own businesses.