The Ontario government is facing criticism over the way it is promoting its move to make tuition free for some college students and help others, including university students, with some of their costs.
Some postsecondary students and opposition critics say the government is being deceptive by highlighting the idea that tuition will be "free" when there are a number of caveats attached.
"I just personally don't like the way it's represented," Miranda Underwood, the student president at Windsor's St. Clair College, told The Globe and Mail in an interview Wednesday. She said students have told her that it's "misleading."
"There's always strings attached to everything," she said. "It's just not as simple as getting a coupon for a free ice-cream cone at McDonald's."
The issue blew up after Premier Kathleen Wynne appeared to suggest during a question-and-answer session with students Tuesday that she was also concerned about how the new plan is being communicated.
Ms. Wynne's government announced the tuition strategy – the Ontario Student Grant – in its budget last month. It will give most college students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year grants large enough to cover their tuition. University students pay more tuition, so some of their costs will be covered.
The new program is not to come into effect until 2017, and attracted positive headlines for the government when it was announced. Since then, some of the branding around the announcement has highlighted the word "free." For example, the NDP pointed out an online ad in which Ms. Wynne is standing at a podium with the words "Free Tuition" in the background; "ANNOUNCING FREE TUITION for eligible low- and middle-income students in Ontario" is written under the picture.
Ms. Underwood, meanwhile, was one of three students on the panel that fielded questions from students across the province to the Premier Tuesday; the session was streamed on the Internet.
She took the Premier to task over the marketing of the new plan: "… many students feel uncomfortable with the term 'free.' And some of them feel it could be misleading. So have you guys considered within your campaign to students … clarifying that it's not specifically free, that it's just encompassing certain costs?"
The Premier appeared to agree with Ms. Underwood, suggesting that she had worried about this issue.
"What we want is for people to understand what it is they're being offered, and that it's within their reach," the Premier said. "So, if there's a way of explaining it, because I have worried about the same thing, that it's free with some explanation required, right?"
Ms. Underwood said Wednesday she was "glad to see" Ms. Wynne recognized that there are a lot of caveats to the program.
London MPP Peggy Sattler, the NDP's training, colleges and universities critic, called the government's new program an "improvement on what existed before" and said that some students would definitely be further ahead as a result.
"But it does feel like it was more of a marketing exercise to promote it as free tuition than to really state what it is, which is streamlined access to student-aid programs," said Ms. Sattler.
No new money is being added to the postsecondary school budget, she said.
"If they are using public dollars to promote public programs, policy, they should be honest about what is in the program," she said. "Here it seems they are using public dollars to further their political interest. It is in their political interest to market it as free tuition."
David Soberman, a marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management, says he believes in selling but when it comes to governments, he says they should be in the "mode of providing information." He also questioned the effectiveness of the government's strategy.
"Maybe they [the Wynne government] didn't do the best job they could in terms of communicating this because it has created a degree of confusion among the target segment for this particular program, which are students," he added.
Government spokeswoman Jennifer Beaudry says there are no plans to change the marketing.
She said, too, that they are "deliberately" talking about the tuition being free "because we need to fundamentally change the behaviour of kids and parents from low-income backgrounds."
"We need them to know we want and need them in postsecondary education and that we're taking away a barrier that could prevent them from being there," Ms. Beaudry wrote in an e-mail.