By Katherine DeClerq
CUP Ontario Bureau Chief
OTTAWA (CUP) — On Feb. 12, the Ontario Progressive Conservative’s released a white paper on post-secondary education (PSE) called Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs. The report claims that the current PSE system is not equipped to meet Ontario’s employment standards.
“I think there are some things that are going well in our schools, “ explained Rob Leone, MPP Cambridge and PC Critic for Training, Colleges and Universities. “But there are things that require drastic change. Within the last ten years we have seen tuition go up and quality in our universities deteriorate.
“Class sizes are up, interaction between faculty and students is poor and the number of full-time professors has declined relative to part time instructions. We have some issues to deal with.”
The first aspect of the white paper is the “College First Strategy” in which the conservatives will encourage students to enter into skilled trades and apprenticeships, promote college credits and facilitate the transferring of credits between colleges and universities. Last year, 49 per cent of college students admitted to having already completed post-secondary education elsewhere.
Tyler Epp, director of advocacy for the College Student Alliance (CSA), was impressed with the white paper’s focus on quality improvement and sustainability. While he is unsure about colleges being labeled as the preferred institution to deliver three-year degrees, he approves of the emphasis on the college system as a source of marketable skills.
“Promoting college as a first step after high school has some advantages in that college certificate, diploma and degree programs all have one common denominator, they all have distinct learning outcomes which are linked to labour market demands. The advantage of which is that for a student who is seeking post secondary education solely as a means to attaining a career, college is a rational, lower cost alternative to university.”
While the report did not include a proposal to reduce tuition fees, it did put an emphasis on ensuring that the quality of education reflects the cost. The recommendations include a reassessment of faculty priorities, which typically are arranged 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research, and 20 per cent service to the university. Teaching-only staff is to be encouraged.
Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), believes that capping the salaries of professor’s and keeping professors accountable is only one issue to be dealt with.
“The first is that it seems like the PCs are trying to find more and more ways to blame institutions and push the cost of education system onto the private system, which includes us as individuals instead of taking responsibility and funding the education sector adequately,” she said.
“The federation has made proposals to, for example, cap salaries of senior administration staff, which is a line that has been growing drastically over the last few years. I find it interesting that the PCs propose wage freezes on professors and other faculty without acknowledging the fact that the biggest cost is coming from the senior administration level.”
Brandon Sloan, communications director for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), believes that the reassessment of priorities could be beneficial; however they agree with the CFS that teaching-only faculty may not be the right route to take.
“Students in Ontario are generally supportive of the creation of teaching-focused faculty. Students believe that professors should have greater flexibility when it comes to professional responsibilities. However, the Tories have proposed teaching-only faculty, which is something that we can’t entirely support because we believe that a professor’s ability to bring in their own research into the undergraduate experience is very valuable as well.”
Paths to Prosperity was built around the idea “No Qualified Student Gets Left Behind.” The Conservatives have suggested that students should be rewarded for their academic achievements, and that bursaries and grants should be incorporated into the financial system. The government would continue to administer aid through a financial system that would grow as tuition increased.
“The “No Qualified Student Gets Left Behind” policy guarantees access. We prefer to provide and help our students who are most in need with grants rather than loans. We want to encourage students to do better,” explained Leone. “One example we are thinking about is to [give] loan-relief to our highest achievers in terms of marks as a way to say to students there is a way to reduce your debt load.”
In terms of fees, the white paper proposes that student unions should be held accountable to their membership and that students should be allowed to opt-out of paying fees that go towards political advocacy.
“We have to remember that student associations are accountable to their members, which is not the Progressive Conservatives or the government, or the institution that they are at,” reiterated King. “They are accountable to their members, who are the students who make up that association. I think it is problematic that the government is saying that there should be oversight in terms of accountability to the membership.”
The CSA is in agreement in that they believe student fees pay for representation that will bring student interests to the attention of the right people.
“In my opinion, the fees students pay for provincial political representation through their student associations have dollar for dollar the single most impact on their post secondary experience, even if students may not be aware of it. The advocacy efforts of organizations like OUSA, and CSA, wholly supported through the college and university student associations, are responsible for maintaining the student voice at the policy making level,” explained Epps.
The CFS continues to maintain that the only way to make post-secondary education accessible is to reduce tuition fees, something that is not suggested in the PC’s white paper.
“The white paper as a whole makes a series of fairly substantial recommendations that I think are a direct attack on low and middle income students and families, and not the direction we should be taking to improve access to PSE in the province,” explains King. “Once again we are seeing a proposal that doesn’t acknowledge that the only way to make PSE more accessible is to lower tuition fees.”
Leone explained that he has been talking to student groups, faculty associations, administrators, parents, and employers since last April in preparation for the creation of this white paper. The CFS, OUSA, and CSA have all said that they have talked to Leone, but were not directly consulted in the building of the white paper.
The PC’s are under no illusion that their white paper will be well-received or endorsed. Leone reiterates that Paths to Prosperity was meant to encourage discussion and debate in hopes of creating concrete policy down the line.