Critics of Premier Doug Ford’s post-secondary education policies say he’s doing damage control ahead of the June election, trying to make up for three years of decisions they say have made education even less accessible than ever before.
“We see this time and time again from Conservative governments, they make cuts that will do long-term damage to our vital services and then right before election time, they offer a little perk to voters and hope they forget all about the previous three years,” said Fred Hahn, of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), in a March statement.
In 2019 Ford cut the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) by 40 per cent in 2019, saying it was not financially sustainable. To smooth the transition, he also promised to reduce tuition prices by 10 per cent.
Changes to OSAP included household salary cutoffs for grants and loans, eliminating the six-month interest-free grace period, shifting provincial funding for students from mainly grant-based to loan-based, and making certain student incidental fees optional.
A year after the tuition reduction came into effect, the Ontario government froze tuition prices for the following school year, and then again for the 2022-2023 school year.
But those freezes don’t adequately make up for the financial impact of free tuition for low income families, say critics like former premier, Kathleen Wynne.
“I was devastated when he made those changes,” she said.
Wynne, who wont be running in the upcoming election, is the current Liberal party critic for education and training, as well as colleges and universities.
According to the province, students in university undergraduate arts and science degree programs will pay an average of $660 less in tuition with the freeze.
But it isn’t enough, says Sam Andrey, the acting executive director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab, who questioned whether the cut made “anybody in the college-university sector happy.”
“The freezing of tuition does not nearly make up the financial impact of the cuts to the free tuition and the grants program,” he said.
“The 10 per cent cut in tuition only helped the wealthiest families who were able to pay for tuition already,” said Wynne.
She said students that previously were receiving grants that would cover full tuition costs would not benefit from a tuition reduction.
“A 10 per cent cut was not enough to allow them to continue,” said Wynne.
A tuition freeze will “provide some necessary short-term relief,” according to a CUPE statement from March, “however the Ford government must reverse its cuts and provide necessary funding to the provinces universities.” CUPE argues that this last minute decision to extend the freeze is designed to win votes and to make voters forget about the past three years, while ultimately making other decisions that will “take away necessary funds that help provide services to students.”
Wynne says it’s clear from Ford’s lack of support for Laurentian University’s financial crisis last year — believed to be the result of the tuition freeze, and reduced enrolment due to the pandemic — that this government isn’t backing post-secondary institutions
On Feb. 1, 2021, Laurentian declared insolvency and became the first Canadian university to seek aid from the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act.
Two months later the university cut 72 programs and laid off more than 100 faculty and staff.
“The provincial government basically abandoned them and said, ‘We’re not going to backstop this university,’” Wynne said.
On The Record reached out multiple times to multiple spokespeople for the premier’s office, Ford’s costituency office, and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities with questions pertaining to the government’s support of students generally, as well as its support of Laurentian University. No responses were received.
With an election approaching in June, voters should reflect on the current government’s changes to OSAP and the lack of support for post-secondary institutions, said Wynne.
“Whoever is in office needs to pay attention to the post-secondary sector,” she said, adding that whoever forms office in June needs “to support young people in getting the best education that they can in a coherent and systematic way.”