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ontario election

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath unveiled her party's education platform at Toronto's Ryerson University on Thursday, promising to freeze tuition fees for the next four years and eliminate interest on student debt.

"We have to stop punishing people for investing in their future. It doesn't help any of us when people graduate buried under a mountain of debt," she said, flanked by Ryerson students and alumni, and Trinity-Spadina candidate Rosario Marchese.

But while the proposal's welcome news to student groups that have castigated the province for rising tuition fees, both the Liberals and some academics argued it does little to improve access: It's less costly and more efficient, they argue, to tie tuition relief directly to income. So if a family earns less, the student's tuition is less – and vice-versa.

Ryerson University President Sheldon Levy's among them. If access is a priority, he argued, then the focus should be on making assistance income-based.

"I've never been a great supporter of tuition freezes," he confessed. "It's very different, a tuition freeze for a family income of $50,000 and a family income of $500,000. … The most progressive thing you can do is provide financial aid to students."

That said, he understands its attraction for politicians. The NDP promised tuition freezes years ago; the Liberals froze tuition for a two-year period from 2004 to 2006.

"It's easy to understand and every family would see it as a good thing," he said. "A strong financial aid policy is even better for low-income families or modest-income families but it's very hard to communicate."

But Ms. Horwath argued rising tuition fees are making education unattainable across the board.

"It's something that dissuades young people from considering post-secondary education," she said. "It's a matter of access and it's a matter of making a commitment to post-secondary education."

A pair of announcements Thursday were Ms. Horwath's first mention of education in the campaign – part of a protracted platform rollout that drew accusations of dawdling from her political opponents.

"I don't think they have a lot of new ideas," said Liberal candidate John Milloy, who was the previous government's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.

He touted his party's pledge to provide grants to students whose families earn up to $160,000 a year – a "cut" to tuition, he argued, as opposed to a freeze. That program's expected to assist 310,000 students, and cost a total of $1.5-billion over four years.

He added that he doesn't believe the NDP has the cash it would need to keep university funding constant if the party took away schools' ability to raise fees.

"They're going to have to find that through cuts.," he said. "I'm sure [university administrators]are very, very worried about this."

The NDP's plan is to top up universities for the amount they'd lose by not being able to increase tuition rates – but only by 2.5 per cent a year, well below the maximum of five per cent they're now allowed. That would cost the government a total $830-million over four years. But Mr. Milloy said the freeze will cost universities $1.8-billion – the amount they would have otherwise been able to accrue in the maximum allowable tuition increases.

That's what worries Mark Rosenfeld, executive director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. He's pleased all three parties are addressing issues of affordability and access in their post-secondary platforms. What worries him is the quality of education students are receiving: Professor-student ratios keep rising, and per-capita student spending has dropped 25 per cent since the early 1990s.

"That means further cuts if there's not full compensation," he said. "Any initiative on the affordability front has to recognize the pressures the university system is experiencing."

Later Thursday, Ms. Horwath also pledged to level the playing field between wealthy elementary and high-school students and their less well-off counterparts by banning them from charging course fees and trying to lessen disparities between schools that can make killings of fundraising and ones that can't.

"For far too long, children in some schools have been unable to get the quality education others are able to get. … It's creeping into a two-tier system," she said. "We think the public education system should be covering off those costs."

That works out to about $20,000 per school for the fees, and $4,000 to $6,000 per parent council.

"I didn't hear anything about student achievement. I didn't hear anything about graduation rates. I didn't hear anything about giving students opportunities to excel. I'm very suprised at the thinness of the platform," said Liberal candidate Kathleen Wynne, former education minister. "A lot of what Andrea is talking about is already happening."