Alberta and Ontario Educational Cuts

Distance Education, OSAP, Teacher Union Strikes, and Student Unionism

In recent months, students and teacher associations have continued to decry provincial governmental policies by Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) under Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government under Doug Ford amidst cuts to education.

Early this month, the Alberta provincial government announced its plans to not renew Alberta Distance Learning Centre’s (ADLC) service agreement after the 2021-22 year.  They will also slowly phase out the program, reducing $18 CAD million in funding this year, to $14 million and $7 million in the upcoming two years, a result of Budget 2020, which introduced various cuts to balance Alberta’s budget by 2022 – 23.

ADLC began a century ago as a correspondence school for students in Alberta’s rural and remote areas, with materials delivered by post.  After adopting its current name in 1991, ADLC linked with the Pembina Hills School Board in 1996.  ADLC currently supports Alberta’s school boards by providing Grades 1 – 12 instruction, teacher support, and resources free of charge.  Students can access courses online or in print.

Critics, such as Bárbara Silva, Communication Director of Support Our Students Alberta, are not surprised.  When contacted for a statement, she revealed, “Support Our Students Alberta is disappointed but not surprised that the contract for the Alberta Distance Learning Centre will be canceled in two years time.  The decision is in keeping with this government’s persistent focus on divesting itself of its obligation to properly fund public education for all students across Alberta.”

Currently, the province offers thirty-two distance education programs and ADLC cuts aim to equitably fund the province’s distance education providers.  Critics believe that while ADLC may have been the only provider to receive dedicated block funding, the cuts will lead to outsourcing to for-profit online learning.  This is because other distance providers, which did not offer specific grades or courses, would often send students to ADLC.  Silva stated, “Eliminating funding for ADLC does not eliminate the need to provide educational resources to these students, it only services to create a market for private providers to step in and commodify learning at the expense of our most marginalized students.  We anticipate this gap being filled by online third-party providers in light of current underfunding for education at all levels.  This is yet another way this government creates an environment that incentivises privatization in education and we are disappointed beyond measure with this decision.  We would like to remind this government that purports to support choice in education that the overwhelming majority of Albertans (94%) choose public education in some form, and it behooves this Ministry to respect that decision.”

When contacted for a statement, Jason C. Schilling, President of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, worried about the fate of teachers, “In regards to the cuts to the funding of ADLC, it is a perplexing decision by government to end the funding of ADLC as they have been in operation for decades.  There could be several impacts to education in Alberta.  First, there are around 80 teachers who work with ADLC, the cuts cause uncertainty to these teachers as to whether they will have employment.”

Critics also fear that this will push already marginalized students further out of the educational system, especially those in rural districts that do not have access to resources and materials provided by ADLC.  According to Silva, “… ADLC serves as a lifeline for our most marginalized students, rural students, students who were disengaged by the regular system and currently, by an antiquated curriculum that doesn’t reflect them in any way.”

Similarly, Schilling believes, “Another impact would be to the students of Alberta.  Many schools rely on ADLC to assist students with a successful completion of school.  Many rural boards will use ADLC materials to provide students opportunity they may not get in a regular class setting.  For instance, my school does not offer Spanish courses, but students can obtain credits through ADLC.  It is also noteworthy that during times of crisis such as the floods in Calgary or the fires in Fort McMurray, ADLC provided materials to students, often free of charge, to allow them to continue their studies.  There has been no clear reasoning as to why this cut is necessary or what the plans are for Boards to deliver a service similar to the one that ADLC provides.”

Alberta’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 budget will remain at $8.2 billion until 2022 – 23, while abolishing Class Size Funding, Classroom Improvement and School Fee Reduction grants.  Critics point out the while funding remains the same, student populations are expected to continue increasing.

In addition, in 2019 – 2020, Alberta’s post-secondary education’s budget was decreased to $5.1 billion from $5.4 billion, with an expected further decrease to $4.8 billion by 2022 – 23.  An end to the 5-year tuition freeze means a 7% tuition increase institutionally, including here at AU, will be affecting out of province and international students as well.  The interest rate for student loans will also increase to prime plus 1%, from the current prime.

In Ontario, although more than one year has passed since Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s January 2019 cutbacks to education, protests continue.  Cuts to Ontario Student Assistance Plan (OSAP), Ontario’s student loan program, cuts of secondary education, as well as the introduction of voluntary student unionism are some examples of controversy.

In secondary education, the Ford government cut $25 million from specialized programs in primary and secondary schools.  The Education Programs-Other (EPO) Fund provided programs for at risk youth, including after school programs, tutoring, daily physical activity, and leadership.  Other cuts included rolling back the sex education curriculum and removing the $100 million budget for school repairs.  Increased class sizes required by the budget may mean the loss of 3,400 teacher’s positions in the next few years.  In addition, the government shut down the Harmony Movement, an anti-racist group, which promoted inclusive education and workshops for the province’s school boards.  Topics included racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia.

As a result of these cuts, Ontario’s teachers’ unions have begun labour actions.  These include rotating strikes and walkouts by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF).  While Ford has been recently quoted, “The parents are losing their patience, we’re losing our patience,” OSSTF president Harvey Bischof countered “Of course parents are losing patience, but all evidence tells us they’re losing patience with the Ford government and its short-sighted pursuit of reckless cuts that will damage students’ opportunities and Ontario’s future economy.”

Amidst these actions, the Ford government, which had previously introduced a controversial plan to make e-learning courses compulsory for high school students, has recently changed its position.  On March 3, 2020, Education Minister Stephen Lecce revealed that parents now have the option to opt out of this requirement.  They have also offered to decrease the number of proposed students in the classrooms, however, Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, revealed that he would like Lecce to “bring proposals to the bargaining table.”

In post-secondary education, the Ontario government cut free-tuition for low-income students, with Training, Colleges, and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton calling OSAP grants unsustainable.  Low-income students, especially those in families earning less than $50,000 CAD per year, who could have previously had their entire tuition covered, will now receive a portion of their funding as a loan.  In addition, the OSAP threshold for students qualifying for partial funding whose families earn $175,000 CAD has been reduced to $140,000 CAD.

Ford also announced a 10% tuition cut for 2019 – 2020 and tuition freeze the following year, believing that this will help those students who need it most, but critics disagree.  Liberal Mitzie Hunter, former minister of post-secondary education believes that while wealthy students benefit, needy students still suffer.  This is expected to cut $360 million in revenue from universities and $80 million in revenue for collages.

Finally, Ford launched the “Student Choice Initiative (SCI).” Approved by the Cabinet on December 12, 2018 and announced on January 17, 2019, SCI allowed students to opt out of paying additional fees, such as those for student unions – which in turn fund campus groups, clubs, and newspapers.  In a February 2019 fundraising email, Doug Ford’s statements caused controversy as he stated, “Students were forced into unions and forced to pay for those unions” as well as “I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to” have led critics to question if these cuts are politically motivated.

NDP colleges and universities critic Chris Glover released a statement stating that Ford’s decision is destroying student unions for the simple reason that he does not want students organizing to protest his cuts.  Fear existed that opting out’s would reduce the transparency of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions.  Many of these organizations hold school administrators and the Ontario government accountable for their actions, including fee increases and strategic plans.  Liberal Mitzie Hunter believes that “This is an attack on the voice of students to advocate for themselves.”  Other critics, such as Jack Denton, editor in chief for The Varsity, believe that student unions are making education more accessible and fighting to lower fees.  A full-time Ontario student should expect to pay approximately $300 in fees yearly.

A recent article by Coty Zachariah, National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, an organization representing 500,000 members of 64 student unions across Canada, in college, undergraduate, and graduate levels, reveals that student unions and associations are key to driving systemic changes in education.  Unions have won victories, such as increased funding for Indigenous students, as well as graduate students, standalone sexual assault policies, grants for students with disabilities, and tuition freezes.

University newspapers, such as the University of Toronto’s The Varsity are funded by mandatory student fees.  Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton stated, “Students shouldn’t be forced to pay fees for things they don’t use or support.”  However, The Varsity provides the main source of news for 90,000 students and has approximately 30 employees.  Other benefits of student unionism include organizing and collective action, creating student newspapers, offering funding for student clubs, coordinating orientation weeks, and running food banks, peer support, and equity centres, which focus on disabled, BIPOC, and queer students.  Fees that remained mandatory amidst the changes included health and counselling, athletics and recreation, walksafe programs, and academic support.

In November, 2019, the Ontario Divisional Court struck down the SCI based on filing by the Canadian Federation of Students and the York Federation of Students, with a large part dealing with the issue of university autonomous governance.  Canadian Federation of Students v.  Ontario 2019 ONSC 6658 granted the Federation’s application.  After the overturn of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), many schools, such as York University released statements thatstudents enrolled in the Winter 2020 term courses will be charged all non-essential fees pertaining to those courses.”  Carleton University will also be charging fees, however, not retroactively.  On November 9, 2019, the Ontario provincial government announced their appeal of the decision.

When contacted for a statement, Niveditha Sethumadhavan, Vice-Preseident of External Affairs at Brock University Students’ Union stated that “While currently the Student Choice Initiative has been suspended, there were a number of changes that were identified by us that would have and have had a lasting impact within the province of Ontario.  First and foremost, student association autonomy is threatened.  Students do not realize that several of the essential services that they are reliant on are run by Student Unions.  These are the various services, that through a democratic process, was voted on by the student body itself.  Here at the Brock University Students’ Union, we run food businesses, a food bank, the transit program and multiple other services that have a large impact on student life.  Advocacy at its basic level is threatened.  It is the most marginalized students who rely on these services who would not continue to have a framework of support.  We are very glad that the SCI has been reverted and look forward to going back to operating in the way that we did, serving our students to the highest standard.”

Historically, the Ford government’s move against unionism has precedence.  In 2006, Voluntary student unionism (VSU) officially came into effect in Australia.  Australia’s Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 was an amendment to Higher Education Support Act 2003 “to abolish compulsory student unionism in higher education institutions which receive Commonwealth funding; and reduce grants to an institution that breaches the voluntary student unionism requirements.”  However, its true beginnings can be traced back to 1994.  In 2012, New Zealand’s Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Act came into effect, where it is known as voluntary student membership (VSM). 

Although these cuts are recent, in Ontario particularly, history is repeating itself, with cuts reminiscent of Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution,” which included teacher strikes, increased class sizes, increased teaching days, and well as less teacher preparation time.  In Alberta, Kenney’s government has been compared to the early 1990s Ralph Klein’s cuts to education.