A media release distributed by the provincial government on January 17 proudly proclaimed that Ontario was about to “lower student tuition burden by 10 per cent.” The release went on to say that the tuition cuts were another step in “the Ford Government’s plan to keep more money in the pockets of Ontario students and families.”
Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, was undoubtedly hoping that Ontarians would take those claims at face value and not think too deeply about the other measures she was announcing that morning.
What wasn’t highlighted in the media release was that the Ford government is also scrapping the free tuition program for low income families, which was introduced by the previous Liberal government. That program will be replaced with a revamped system of grants and loans, and the end result will be precisely the opposite of “more money in the pockets of Ontario students.” Grants will be more difficult to access than under the previous system and, for most students, any savings realized by the 10 per cent tuition reduction will be wiped out many times over by the extra debt they’ll be carrying when they graduate. And even then they won’t be able to take advantage of the six-month interest-free grace period, because the government is eliminating that, too.
The Minister also announced that students would now be able to opt out of certain fees—fees that, in almost all cases, would have been approved through an on-campus referendum. Those fees fund student activities and services ranging from campus newspapers to student unions, and they are in place because the majority of students have indicated that those services are important to them. The government’s move to allow an opt-out from these fees is an affront to the democratic will of the students that voted to adopt them, and it’s a move that will almost certainly undermine the important work that student unions perform on behalf of, and for the benefit of, students on campuses all over Ontario.
For OSSTF/FEESO District 35 members employed in the university sector, the most immediate threat resides in the fact that the government has no plans to replace the revenue lost to institutions by virtue of the 10 per cent tuition reduction. Ontario already ranks dead last in Canada in per-student funding for universities, and this move by the government will only exacerbate that problem by removing hundreds of millions of dollars from the province’s post-secondary system. That funding shortfall cannot help but negatively impact the crucial frontline services that OSSTF/FEESO members provide to students on the campuses where they work.
The government devised these changes in the absence of any consultation with students, frontline workers or university administrators. If they had bothered to consult, they would have heard that any reduction in tuition fees needs to be accompanied by enhanced, stable funding for programs and services at Ontario’s universities.