Gabriele Contessa is an associate philosophy professor at Carleton University
The Government of Ontario announced an overhaul of the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) on Thursday. The shakeup includes a reduction of OSAP’s tuition grant program, as well as a 10-per-cent cut in tuition fees for domestic students enrolling in Ontario colleges and universities in 2019-2020 and a tuition fee freeze for the following year. While the government’s announcement suggests that the changes to OSAP are intended to make higher education more affordable, the reality is that the changes are short-sighted and will make the system less fair.
Despite the superficial appeal of the tuition cut, the reality is that the families who will benefit the most from it are higher-income ones that currently do not qualify for any tuition fee grants. Low-income families who qualify for full tuition fee grants will see virtually no benefit from the cut. If the Ford government was actually interested in making higher education more accessible to and affordable for lower- and midincome families, the way forward is to expand the grants program, not cut tuition fees across the board.
A 10-per-cent decrease in tuition fees is a drop in the bucket of the costs associated with attending college or university. According to the government’s own estimate, the average student will see a reduction in tuition fees of $340 a year, which is unlikely to be of much help to most students (to put things in perspective, this is less than 2 per cent of the estimated financial costs of attending college and university, and the Canadian Federation of Students estimates that the average student spends between $500 and $1,000 in textbooks and course materials each term).
While the tuition cut is the populist cherry on a regressive policy sundae, it also contributes to an ongoing trend that is changing the nature of our provincial education system. The most likely effect of the tuition cut is that, to make up for the lost revenues, Ontario universities and colleges will take in more international students. Thanks to years of myopic government policies, Ontario higher-education institutions have learned that international students (who pay higher fees that are not regulated by the provincial government) provide a much more remunerative and stable source of revenues than domestic students. As a result, between 2009 and 2015, there has been a 246-per-cent increase in the number of international students (compared to 11.4 per cent for domestic students). As the revenues from domestic fees decrease, Ontario universities and colleges will likely rely even more heavily on the fees paid by international students.
While international students enrich our education system and benefit our economy, the risk is to turn a public education system that Ontarians have been subsidizing for decades into a mixed system that increasingly sees students as paying customers.
Moreover, while Mr. Ford and his supporters might see universities and colleges as bastions of leftist intellectual elitism, the truth is that postsecondary education has a crucial role to play in the economic future of our province. Populist conservative politicians such as Mr. Ford often vow to protect blue-collar jobs, but the harsh reality is that those jobs will continue to disappear.
The inability of the provincial government to keep such promises was brought in stark relief by the government’s failure to persuade General Motors to keep its Oshawa assembly plant open. At the same time, GM launched a new technology centre in Markham, which is projected to have one thousand employees (including 700 engineers).
Episodes such as these give us a glimpse of the economic future of our province. Especially in place like Ontario where labour is expensive, jobs are safe only as long as they cannot be performed more cheaply and efficiently by machines. By and large, jobs of this sort tend to require higher levels of education. If Ontario is to perform well in the new global economy, Ontarians are likely going to need more higher education in the future, not less.
Unfortunately, politicians don’t have strong incentives to consider the long-term consequences of their policies, as their horizon extends at most as far as the next election, if not the next opinion poll. Ultimately, citizens pay the price. Instead of engaging in an ill-advised ideological battle against universities and colleges, the provincial government should develop a long-term plan to grow the provincial higher-education system and to make it fairer and more accessible to all Ontarians – or we will all pay the price for their short-sightedness.