Let Our Children Go

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Ontario's academics can't seem to warm up to Mike Harris.

Since the province's Conservative premier took office in 1995, tuition has jumped by 60 per cent, core funding for colleges and universities has been slashed and a welcome mat has been all but laid out for private, for-profit institutions.

Student and faculty associations have waged a long and vocal campaign against the Tories, demanding better funding, accessible tuition levels and a ban on the private universities that critics fear could devastate public education.

Education groups concede Harris has largely ignored them, but a new study suggests their lobbying may be paying off.

An Ipsos-Reid poll released this week reveals that most Ontarians want the Tories to spend more on universities and colleges:

  • 64 per cent say they want increased funding for post-secondary institutions, even if they'd have to sacrifice their tax cuts to get it;

  • 70 per cent of Ontario's parents are worried their kids won't be able to attend college or university, citing the cost of higher education as their foremost concern.

The poll also found that a majority of Harris' supporters - dedicated PC voters - are willing to swap their tax cuts for better funding for education. Seventy-eight per cent of Tory voters also said they worry their kids won't be able to afford to go to school.

Faculty, staff and student groups are cheering the poll's findings.

"The only thing that pushes [the Conservatives] is public opinion and a threat to their voter base, and I think this poll poses that threat," said Erin George, the Ontario chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. "This poll tells the Harris government that their agenda does not fit with the priorities of Ontarians."

Brian O'Keefe is secretary-treasurer for CUPE Ontario, the union that represents universities' library, administrative, clerical and care-taking workers. O'Keefe says the province spends the second-lowest amount of money per capita on students in North America, second only to Texas. He hopes the poll will convince the province to beef up funding.

"It very clearly indicates that the public wants post-secondary education funded appropriately," he said. "The level of funding right now is appalling."

Academics are also pleased with the Ontario public's stance on private, for-profit universities. Despite the strain on institutions due to space constraints, only 16 per cent say opening private schools is the best strategy to deal with swelling enrolment.

That's good news for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), an organization that has fought vehemently against permitting private schools to grant degrees. The CAUT claims private universities could appeal to trade tribunals under NAFTA and demand that regular universities absolve "trade irritants" like entrance standards, class size limits and tuition caps.

David Robinson, CAUT's associate executive director, says his organization's own research also shows the Ontario poll reflects public sentiment nationwide.

"Ontario is Canada's richest province. If in Canada's riches province you have close to 80 per cent of people saying they're concerned about the high cost of university education, it speaks volumes about what people in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland or Saskatchewan feel."The Canadian Federation of Students (Ontario), the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union commissioned the Ipsos-Reid poll. The results are considered accurate within plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points, nineteen times out of twenty.

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