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Inside the University of Waterloo campus in Stratford Ont.

Ontario has lowered the cap on tuition fee increases to 3 per cent each year in most programs, a supposed compromise that doesn't go far enough in the eyes of student groups yet has universities warning their quality could be squeezed.

The new cap will last four years, and slows the rise of tuition costs after seven years of hikes capped at 5 per cent annually. Professional and graduate programs will still be allowed to rise faster, at up to 5 per cent each year, down from 8 per cent in past years.

The new policy announced Thursday by Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, gives the sector predictability. But it also adds to universities' financial woes at a time when they are also facing cutbacks in their government funding, and with Ontario already boasting the highest average undergraduate tuition at $7,180, students argue affordable education is slipping away at an alarming rate.

"It's a case of finding the sweet spot between ensuring that our postsecondary education system remains affordable while ensuring that it still remains globally competitive," Mr. Duguid said. "If we go too far (in curbing tuition), we're not doing young people any favours because we'd be impacting the quality of their education."

Universities warn some harm to quality may be inevitable. In a letter to the Minister obtained by The Globe and Mail, dated Mar. 15 and signed by all 20 of the province's university presidents, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) outlined the impact of reducing the cap. The letter says a 3-per-cent limit will mean $48-million less revenue for universities next academic year, compared with continuing a 5-per-cent cap, and $459-million less over four years, while costs continue to rise.

"Would universities like to see something that would have sustained things going forward at our current level of funding? Sure," said Bonnie Patterson, president of the COU, in an interview. "But we understand that students and parents really are looking for a change. We'll do our very best within these changes to maintain the quality that we have, and to make the kinds of difficult decisions that will now follow."

In the COU letter, presidents said they "would accept" a 3-per-cent limit, but asked for total flexibility to adjust fees for different programs under the overall cap. The decision to put a lower restriction on fees for graduate and professional programs like law and medicine is a further blow to universities' bottom lines.

"Inevitably, we will be looking internally and questioning how we're going to continue to do things. Unless we can change compensation structures, we will be looking at job losses," said Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph and chair of the COU.

Student groups showed some sympathy to universities' and colleges' desire for more dollars, as Ontario continues to have the lowest per-student funding of any province, and universities already faced $40-million in cuts this year. But students say they simply can't keep paying more.

"It's very disappointing to see the government continue on this path of increasing tuition fees and making sure education becomes further and further out of reach for low– and middle-income families, and indebting students who do pursue post-secondary education even further," said Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, which had pushed for a 30-per-cent reduction in tuition fees over three years combined with reinvestments in government funding.

Alysha Li, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, said the lower cap "is progress." But her organization had argued for a freeze on fees this year, and she noted that "the 3 per cent is still above iflation and still makes post-secondary education less affordable every year."

Both universities and the government counter that students and parents should look beyond the sticker price of education, pointing to billions of dollars in annual student aid including the government's Ontario Tuition Grant, which slashes fees for some low– and middle-income students by up to 30 per cent.

"There's a powerful argument to say all of the supports that are put in place actually discount the sticker price that gets bandied about as students paying excessively high levels of fees in Ontario," Dr. Summerlee said. "But that's also a very tricky argument to get out because it sounds like you're engaging in sort of smoke and mirrors around it."

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