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Ontario's tuition problem

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Student Day of Action in Toronto. Photo: Frandroid Atreides/Flickr

At a time when Ontario's government is promising a transformation of the province's postsecondary education system, it would be wise to focus on a problem it helped create: the problem of high tuition.

A new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Eduflation and the High Cost of Learning, shows Ontario's tuition and compulsory fees are the highest in Canada.

In 1990, Ontario's fees were slightly higher than the Canadian average, but they rose rapidly throughout that decade to become the second highest in Canada. After a brief tuition freeze between 2004 and 2006, fees began climbing with no apparent end in sight. Over the next four years, tuition fees in Ontario are projected to increase by a bigger amount than any other province.

Ontario has become the least affordable province in which to pursue a university degree and it's time the provincial government does something to reverse that trend.

We are asking students to shoulder a greater share of the real cost of higher education than we have in decades. Students attending university in Ontario now contribute 44 per cent of total university operating revenues. That's almost equivalent to the public's share, and it represents a stark reversal in how we used to value university accessibility in this province. That share is also far higher than the 11 per cent contribution students in Newfoundland and Labrador make toward total operating costs.

Unless Ontario stands down from its current policy, university fees in Ontario will be allowed to increase by five per cent every year. At this rate, tuition and other compulsory fees are projected to reach over $9,000 a year by 2015-16 ($8,480 when adjusted for inflation). Compared to other provinces, we'll still be the least affordable place to get an education in Canada.

For a province whose government has openly promised to reduce poverty, Ontario's high tuition policy is at odds with that goal. By 2015-16, university fees will be at least two-and-a-half times more expensive for families at the poverty line to go to university than it was in 1990-91.

In response to the high tuition problem, the Ontario government has implemented a 30 per cent tuition rebate for some students. But CCPA research shows this rebate program puts only a marginal dent in a student's education costs for those who qualify. Clearly, it does nothing for the majority of students who don't qualify.

Other provinces do a better job at helping students deal with tuition costs. Newfoundland and Labrador has a needs-based grant and debt-forgiveness program for students. Ontario would be wise to consider these types of programs. But first, it needs to stand down from its high tuition perch.

Since the end of the freeze in 2006, tuition in Ontario has risen every year by five per cent, yet median incomes in Ontario have only risen by two per cent in recent years (above inflation). Salaries are simply not keeping pace with tuition increases.

Ontario's high tuition problem threatens to worsen the gap between the rich and the rest of us. It burdens students with debt levels so high, it makes them less likely to have assets or own a home after graduation, because their student debt is the size of a mortgage down payment.

Newfoundland and Labrador is leading the way with a lower tuition policy. It is now almost three times more affordable for median income families in that province to send their children to university than it is in Ontario. (It's more than twice as affordable when you take Ontario's tuition rebate into account).

The difference between Ontario and Newfoundland illustrates the impact government leadership can have when it comes to making university accessible to everyone. It demonstrates what happens when a government lets tuition fees soar to the highest in the country: Even a rebate program does little to soften the blow.

After months of watching Quebec students fight back against a high tuition proposal in that province, it should become clear to the Ontario government that it may fast be approaching a limit to its current tuition stance. Ontario is already falling behind other provinces in terms of university affordability and there are signs students are getting restless.

For a government talking about transforming postsecondary education, its core challenge will be to address the problem it helped create. Newfoundland and Labrador has been busy showing us how it can be done.

Trish Hennessy is director of the CCPA's Ontario office. This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

Photo: Frandroid Atreides/Flickr

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