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Ontario Liberal promise of free tuition could usher in long-held dream of privatizing the system

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The Ontario Liberal promise to make post-secondary education free for low-income students in 2017 has blown up my social media feeds. After more than a decade of fees, debt, despair, exploding class sizes, sadness and anger, a little hope has fuelled a lot of praise.

The Ontario Liberals have ushered in the most regressive and anti-student policies in Canada. I remain unconvinced that a Liberal promise for free post-secondary education is what it says it is. I've been disappointed by the Ontario Liberals before.

The good

The government is taking money from the "30 per cent off Ontario tuition" grant, Ontario Student Opportunity Grant, Ontario Access Grants and other OSAP grants to introduce a single upfront grant. This is an important and necessary change. Creating an up-front grant is critical as currently, many grants come later in the school year or worse, through tax rebates at tax time (i.e. the end of the school year).

And, they're turning tax credits into grants. Students have been fighting for this for more than a decade. The federal Liberals intend to do something similar. An end to back-end tax credits is a definite student victory.

They will also do away with requirements that made students who took time off between high school and post-secondary ineligible for many grants.

The announcement proves that politicians know that free higher education is popular, is necessary and that the system is too expensive. This is important from a strategic perspective for student activists.

The bad

The government intends to radically change the funding formula in Ontario. Currently, all students represent a sum of money. Those sums vary depending on the kind of student: resource-intensive programs like engineering or music are funded more and programs like arts or business are funded less.

The budget says that the government will go ahead with the recommendations made in a report released in December that seeks to tie university funding to student outcomes and to the diversification of university mandates. Does this mean that the University of Toronto will finally realize its dream of being a fully private university that receives some public grants? How can a system's funding be based on the nebulous term like "student outcomes?" If universities were hoping for some respite from years and years of funding shocks, this budget confirms that even more chaos is on the horizon.

The ugly

The Liberals are masterful communicators and are very strategic. This is not the first time that they have leveraged popular support for free higher education to implement something that was actually the opposite.

Remember: they have more than doubled tuition fees since 2003, increased private funding in the system to more than half and saddled a generation of students with mortgage-sized debts.

Even in this budget, they've buried the fact that they're increasing the loan maximum. They're raising the cap on student loans from $7,400 to a whopping $10,000. That's a maximum student loan of $40,000 for an undergraduate degree.

I remain highly skeptical that the same crew will also make higher education free for anybody.

The most obvious reason for skepticism is that this new policy doesn't come into effect until 2017, the same year that the tuition fee increase cap of three per cent is set to expire. This offers the perfect opening for tuition fees to be increased as high as the government wants them to go. What's the problem, if students are then going to receive grants to offset these increases?

This is a scheme that has been called for from a regular chorus of pundits, politicians and university administrators. From Alex Usher and Bob Rae, to most recently Stephen Gordon in the National Post, it's one of these arguments that just wont go away: increase tuition fees to the maximum but bring in a grant system to address need.

It's a system that many institutions try to employ in the United States. It's how Ontario's patchwork childcare system works. It hides behind progressive language to justify full-blown privatization of higher education in Ontario.

Why go towards that model rather than towards the fully funded model of the other tiers of education: primary and secondary?

The problem with this system is that people will always fall through the cracks. From students who have been kicked out of their homes to students from families whose parents make $25,000 and $26,000 annually, it's a system that you can make work on paper but that has never proven to be a viable progressive option anywhere in the world.

If we know that high tuition fees are a barrier, why would we increase them to the maximum to then give people grants to help pay those fees?

Why spend money on the bureaucracy needed to track these grants and loans? Why download more costs on institutions who then also have to have large financial assistance offices to also track and manage these students?

What is the sense of it, if all we really need to do is put the money right into fees themselves?

We know that this government doesn't value public control of public institutions and assets, recall the recent sell-off of Ontario Hydro. Deregulating tuition fees will be a disaster for the public system and needs to be resisted by every person to believes in the value of public education.

If the PCs win the next election, handing them a deregulated system would be an even greater disaster. If the ONDP were to win, in their current form, they do not have the political might to undo such a bold change.

This announcement is a test balloon. If people support this announcement, there will be very little that people can do to stop what comes next.

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