Ontario's opposition Progressive Conservatives have offered up a sweeping new road map for post-secondary education, advocating teaching-only professors, higher tuition fees for "elite programs," and a "colleges first" culture aimed at getting graduates jobs.
But the most controversial suggestion in the aspirational 28-page white paper may be making financial aid to students dependent on maintaining good grades. The paper released on Tuesday comes one day after the government swore in Brad Duguid as the province's new minister in charge of colleges and universities, and with speculation about the timing of the next provincial election already swirling.
It is another controversial call for drastic reforms to the sector, the details of which angered some student advocates and drew restrained reactions from universities and colleges. It comes on the heels of a turbulent period in which the former training, colleges and universities minister, Glen Murray, floated a series of major policy shifts, such as making three-year degrees more common at universities, that left many administrators wary and defensive.
But PC leader Tim Hudak is adamant the proof is in the job market. "There are far too many students who have degrees and big debts and they're back on mom and dad's couch because they've got no jobs to go to," Mr. Hudak told reporters.
Rob Leone, the Conservatives' higher education critic, hinted that, if elected, his party would scrap the Liberals' controversial tuition grant, which discounts fees up to 30 per cent of an average tuition bill for many low- and middle-income students. Instead, the paper outlines a vague policy to allow 5-per-cent annual tuition hikes – and larger increases for "elite programs" – to "empower" schools to administer a new style of financial aid using some of the new tuition dollars.
But to keep their aid, "students must demonstrate a minimum level of academic success," the report states, and determining how much they receive "should involve assessments of future employability and should reward good academic behaviour The aim is to "instill a bit of market discipline" in student financial aid, Mr. Leone said, and to reward "merit" rather than "mediocrity."
"We want to make sure money is following students who are doing well," he said.
Student groups condemned that idea, arguing good student performance is often the result of financial well-being. "If you're saying, if your academic performance suffers, you might have less financial assistance provided to you, we might increase the financial burden on students and further decrease their academic performance," said Rylan Kinnon, executive director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
Mr. Duguid warned that ending the tuition grant would "take $400-million out of the pockets of middle- and lower-income students," but promised his ministry will look at each of the report's recommendations.
The paper stresses job-readiness, and calls for a "cultural attitude shift towards the colleges" that would have students considering "college first" through several measures, including allowing colleges to offer more applied three-year degrees. The growing number of university students turning to colleges for skills training after a four-year university degree is inefficient, said Mr. Leone, a former university professor.
"It's better to spend the first degree in a college degree, because it's cheaper and you get a job," said Mr. Leone, adding that applied skills "can be supplemented by the kind of learning that you get at university."
Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, lauded the paper for focusing "on how post-secondary education aligns to the needs of the workplace," but also cautioned against tying financial aid to academic success.
At the same time, the PCs imagine concentrating funding and research on universities' strongest disciplines, while hiring professors who only teach undergraduates, arguing the current norm of dividing professors' time between teaching and research has eroded the quality of instruction.
Faculty associations have loudly decried similar proposals, arguing involvement in research helps inform good teaching. And the Council of Ontario Universities was measured in its response, with president Bonnie Patterson welcoming the paper's "interesting ideas," but cautioning that in several instances, "you have to stop a little bit and say, 'What would the long-term impact be?'"
The report also calls for "greater transparency" from schools by tying university funding to "measureable outcomes," and argues students should be able to opt out of fees their student associations spend on "political advocacy."
With a report from Adrian Morrow