Education News – A Mounting Slope: the Ontario tuition fee problem

With the board of governors’ recent approval of the 2008/2009 budget, Ontario students will once again see the cost of tuition increase

Waterloo (CUP) — As tuition fees across the province continue to rise, undergraduate students in Ontario are faced with the burden of personally contributing the funds necessary for post-secondary education.

Though tuition fees have been subject to slight increases in the past couple of years, it was during the 1990s that tuition rates took a drastic jump. According to Statistics Canada, in Ontario undergraduate tuition has risen by about 220 per cent since the 1990/1991 operating year.

While a five per cent increase cap exists in Ontario, most institutions are riddled with debt and are forced to raise their tuition fees by this maximum amount to remain functional places of learning.

Increasing tuition in Ontario

Ontario remains the third most expensive province in the country from which to obtain a degree, following only Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

According to a report issued by Statistics Canada, in the 2007/2008 school year, tuition in Ontario increased 4.4 per cent from the previous year, making the average tuition paid by Ontario’s undergraduate students $5,381. This is over $850 above the national average.

Jim Butler, vice-president of finances at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, explains that the reason behind the drastic increase in tuition fees is a result of a decline in funding from the provincial government.

?Within a decade there has been a change, simply because governments weren’t really interested in putting more money into the post-secondary system,? he said.

According to Butler, at the end of the 1980s government grants accounted for between 85 and 90 per cent of university revenue. Now he says It’s about 50 per cent.

Laurier president Max Blouw has also seen how the cost of education in Ontario has been shifting to a ?user pay system.?

Being in a position where he frequently deals with both the student body and the government, through his seat on the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), Blouw is constantly exposed to the multiple perspectives that exist on this issue.

?The real question, of course, for any government, and for students and for university administrators is, ?What’s a fair balance? What is an appropriate balance of costs to the public as opposed to the individual??? said Blouw.

?I’m not sure that we really have a way to find an absolutely right answer.?

Catherine Fife, former MPP candidate in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding and current vice president for the Ontario Public School Board Association, feels that ?downloading? the cost of university onto students is not the right answer.

?With a looming economic downturn, this is the time to invest in post-secondary,? said Fife.

?The connection between a strongly publicly funded education system and having opportunities to transfer that knowledge into the post-secondary arena is key to a healthy province,? she added.

The province’s undergrad tuition fee framework

After a two-year tuition freeze, in March of 2006 the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced a new fee framework that places limits on how institutions across the province can increase undergraduate tuition fees.

?The government put a cap on tuition over the past two years and they’ve come forth with a tuition fee framework recently,? explained Greg Flood, a spokesperson for the Ministry.

While annual increases cannot exceed five per cent, there are further guidelines applied to particular programs and years of study.

?It equates to . . . about $200 for about 70 per cent of university students, is what You’re looking at for a five per cent increase,? said Flood.

Student response

In order to address the many concerns surrounding increasing tuition rates, several lobby groups exist on both the provincial and federal levels. Two examples are the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), which deals with post-secondary issues at the federal level, and the provincial lobby group Ontario University Student Alliance (OUSA).

Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU) VP University Affairs and president of OUSA, Trevor Mayoh, explains the importance of having such groups acting on behalf of students.

?They lobby hard but what they actually do at the lobby meetings is provide solid research and recommendations,? he said.

Mayoh notes that OUSA has several conferences each year where they meet with MPs, MPPs, Ministers, and other representatives from the government.

?we’re actually sitting in there and coming up with real solutions, he said. ?I think That’s why we’re being respected and That’s why we’re being listened to and I don’t think It’s a way we should break from.?

Mayoh highlights some of the successes of OUSA, including the current five per cent increase cap, and the Liberals using solutions offered by OUSA in their most recent education platform.

While Mayoh feels that professional conduct is the best approach for the organization to take, other student groups, such as the Association for Solidarity Student Unions (ASSÉ) in Quebec, have used a different method in dealing with issues surrounding student fees.

When Quebec lifted the province’s 13-year tuition freeze last fall, advocacy groups across the province garnered national attention as thousands of striking students took to the street to protest the increasing cost of their education.

?ASSÉ represents a big movement in Quebec and It’s kind of a radical vision,? explained Hubert Gendron-Blais, ASSÉ’s secretary for communications.

?Radical is just to go really deeply into problems . . . It’s just the way that we approach things.?

Gendron-Blais feels the culture of Quebec is simply more conducive to this type of movement than that of Ontario.

?I think that the global climate makes people in Quebec more willing to mobilize themselves,? said Gendron-Blais. ?We know that students can obtain things for education if they mobilize.?

The future

While the current five per cent cap on undergraduate tuition will remain in place until the government announces a new policy, the future of the education system in Ontario remains uncertain.

According to a 2007 report by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, Ontario still receives the second-lowest amount of government funding, at 25 per cent below the Canadian average.

While Blouw sees a considerable effort being made on behalf of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government to invest in education, he notes that there is still a ways to go before the province gets to where it should be in terms of funding.

?The government is doing a lot recently, they’ve been putting a lot more money in,? said Blouw. ?It’s a moving target though. Other provinces, other nations are investing in the post-secondary system.

“[The government has] a lot of costs and post-secondary is one of them, but It’s an investment in the future and I think a strong investment is appropriate,? he added.

While there seems to be a consensus that an increase in public funding is necessary to ensure that the cost of education does not continue to fall on the individual, Mayoh feels that students must also do their part to safeguard the future security of Ontario’s education system.

?The quality of education and the amount of tuition is all going askew. We really need to solve this or we’re going to be in a really rough, black circle,” said Mayoh. ?The problem is, everyone agrees . . . It’s just getting them to act, is the biggest problem.?

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