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Upcoming Ontario election sparks tuition fees talk

Alexandra Posadzki | CUP Ontario Bureau Chief | News | February 14th, 2011

TORONTO (CUP) — With a provincial election slated for October and the possibility of a federal election on the horizon, Ontario post-secondary students are wondering what that will mean for tuition fees.

"I think the changing nature of our economy is going to be a central issue (in the election), the role of public services is going to be a central issue, and within that postsecondary education is key," said John Milloy, minister of training, colleges and universities.

There is currently no multi-year funding framework in place for post-secondary education, said Sandy Hudson, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students- Ontario. When the last framework expired, said Hudson, it was extended until the election.

"I think that means that the election is going to be very important for post-secondary education," said Hudson, adding that Ontario students pay the highest tuition fees in the country.

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, recently weighed in about the costs of tuition in the province.

"There's no doubt that there needs to be a lot of work done on affordability of post-secondary education and maintaining the quality of post-secondary education in this province," said Horwath.

"I think the government makes a lot of promises, a lot of claims that don't pass the smell test when push comes to shove."

But Horwath would not mention any specifics of the NDP's upcoming campaign.

Meanwhile, McGuinty's Liberals have been busy reminding voters of their track record on post-secondary issues in hopes of being re-elected.

"Post-secondary education has a much more important role these days because of the changing nature of the economy," said Milloy. "That's why, despite the fact the government has financial challenges, we've still found significant dollars to invest in it, because we realize it's so important for the new economy."

The new economy that Milloy referred to is one where, experts say, 70 per cent of new jobs will require a post-secondary education. In response, Milloy hopes to ensure that 70 per cent of Ontario residents get post-secondary schooling. Currently, that figure falls just short at around 62 per cent.

He said he hopes to increase accessibility for those who are not well-represented in Ontario's colleges and universities, such as Aboriginal students and students with disabilities.

In addition to the Liberals promise to create more spaces in Ontario's schools through the Open Ontario program, Milloy pointed to the $81 million the government invested in the Ontario Student Assistance Program last spring as proof of their track record on education.

But encouraging students to rack up more debt may not be the ideal solution, according to Hudson.

"I think the problems are just getting worse and worse. We see, in addition to the fee hikes, the government continually turning to debt as the way to fund post-secondary education," she said.

The recession affects students in a disproportionate way, she added, because they are in a "precarious position in their lives when it comes to work," making it difficult to pay back thousands of dollars in student loans.

But Milloy says he would happily put the Liberals' record on postsecondary education up against the records of the Progressive Conservatives or the NDP.

"The best predictor of future actions is past actions," said Milloy. "We've made post-secondary education a priority. We've invested considerable resources, we've brought in policy changes, we've done everything we can to encourage more people to go into it.

"When you look at the other two parties when they were in power, post-secondary education quite frankly was at the bottom of the list of their priorities and you saw funding decreases and cuts to the system."

Hudson disagrees.

"Students remember Dalton McGuinty for breaking his promise of freezing tuition fees," said Hudson, referring to the 2004 tuition freeze that was lifted after two years. Tuition fees subsequently increased "far more than they would have been increased under previous policy of the Conservative government," she added.

A recent story in The Globe and Mail dubbed McGuinty the "education premier" for his work on elementary and secondary education, as well as for creating fullday kindergarten classes.

"I think that if McGuinty wants to be known as an effective education premier, not one that saw tuition fees rise faster than they would have under a Conservative government, he's going to need to take a good look at access to postsecondary education," said Hudson.

The student federation will be focusing on lobbying the government and educating and mobilizing students to make sure that postsecondary issues are on the table during the election.

"We think it's important to recognize that education does not only benefit the individual person who is enrolled in the program. Education benefits the health of society as a whole," said Hudson.

"It is something that our communities by and large should be thinking about when it comes to the election."
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