While the McGuinty government showed interest in postsecondary education in its first term, under Colleges, Training and Universities Minister John Milloy, it’s been coasting in neutral, to put it mildly.
In October, Ontario residents went to the polls in municipal elections. When postsecondary students cast their ballots, I hope they thought beyond the strong personalities who’d grabbed headlines. Indeed, we must not forget the “new deal” many of our municipal leaders won from the McGuinty government a short time ago, and we should strive to bring about a similar outcome for students.
A decade ago, increased recognition had emerged that Ontario municipalities were being dealt an unfair hand. For starters, Ontario municipalities were funding provincial programs in a way that simply wasn’t the case in Canada’s other provinces; in fact, Ontario was the only province where municipalities paid for social services. What’s more, Ontario residents paid the highest property taxes in the country.
But by 2003, Ontario had a minister responsible for municipal affairs who understood municipalities. Not only had John Gerretsen been mayor of Kingston, he’d been president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the umbrella group representing most Ontario municipalities. Gerretsen got it, and during his four years as minister, he made things happen.
Shortly after the 2003 provincial election, the Ontario government introduced a provincial gas tax to fund transit. But that was only the beginning. Negotiations ensued and, by 2008 – just after Gerretson finished a four-year stint as minister – Ontario announced a “new deal” for municipalities. Through a phased-in, multi-year arrangement, municipalities would no longer be funding social assistance benefits, drug benefits, disability benefits, or court security. Municipalities also gained new taxation powers, which resulted in both a car registration tax and a vehicle tax.
The above outcome represents a happy ending in many ways. The McGuinty government, with the help of a strong minister, understood early in the game that it needed to fix a problem. It came to the table to negotiate in good faith and the problem was solved.
And this brings us to Ontario postsecondary students.
Admittedly, one should not accuse the McGuinty government of doing nothing on post-secondary education. He dubbed himself the “education premier,” and in its first mandate, his government delivered in multiple respects. The provincial Liberals announced a total of $6.2 billion in new spending for universities, to be phased in over a four-year period. Around the same time, and in line with an election campaign promise, the student grant system, which had been cut roughly one decade previously, was restored, providing a portion of student loans as up-front grants to Ontario’s lowest-income students. The McGuinty government even froze tuition fees for two years.
But context is everything, and there is much more than meets the eye here. Indeed, university and college enrolment has increased very significantly since McGuinty came to power, in part owing to aggressive enrolment targets set by the provincial government, and in part owing to the so-called “baby boom echo.” To be sure, enrolment has increased at a greater rate than provincial funding. Moreover, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, for every $1 in new money invested by the province in grant funding, $1.30 has been clawed back via tuition fee increases.
And while Ontario undergraduate students paid the fourth-highest tuition rates in Canada when the Liberals took office, last year their tuition rates became the highest. Ontario’s graduate students have actually been paying the highest tuition rates in Canada for the past four years. Ontario is in last place nationally in terms of per-student funding in post-secondary education, and it has the lowest professor-to-student ratio in Canada; that is, the largest class sizes.
Thus, much the same as in the municipal sector a decade ago, Ontario is the outlier in Canada when it comes to post-secondary education. The average undergraduate university student in Ontario pays $6,307 in annual tuition fees, roughly $1,100 more than the average Canadian. For graduate students, it’s even worse: $6,917, or roughly $1,700 greater than the average for Canada.
John Milloy has been Ontario’s minister of Training, Colleges and Universities since October 2007. While the McGuinty government showed interest in post-secondary education in its first term, under Milloy it’s been coasting in neutral – to put it mildly.
It would be one thing if, under Milloy’s watch, tuition fees had increased steadily. But Milloy has set a new standard for ministerial feebleness. According to a September Statistics Canada report, undergraduate tuition fees for domestic students in Ontario increased by 5.4 per cent in the previous year, while graduate tuition fees for domestic students had increased by 10.6 per cent during that time. Consider that in light of Milloy’s ministerial stipulation that tuition increases for domestic undergraduate and graduate students not surpass 5 per cent and 8 per cent respectively.
In short, Milloy hasn’t just demonstrated that he won’t stand up for students, he’s made a case for the fact that Ontario universities don’t even recognize him as the minister in charge.
Premier McGuinty should demonstrate that he really is the “education premier,” willing to offer students a new deal. And he should start by replacing John Milloy as minister.
Nick Falvo is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. He is also vice-president finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).