Just over a month ago, Tim Hudak, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives (PC), released a 27-page plan outlining his vision for post-secondary education in Ontario. Buried within this policy package, Hudak indicates that if elected, the Conservatives will attempt to scrap the 30 per cent tuition grant which the Liberal government implemented, and currently offers. This grant allows some Ontario students from low and middle income backgrounds to receive a rebate on their annual tuition rates.
Hudak claims that the only students who would receive financial support under the Conservative government would be those who are able to maintain a certain, unspecified, academic ranking. In this policy package, Hudak outlines a vague plan to replace the tuition grant with 5 per cent tuition hikes which will supposedly allow this new system of financial aid, dependent on the academic performance of students, to work.
This plan has been supported by many within the Conservative Party, including Cambridge MPP Rob Leone who is also the Ontario PC's Critic for Training, Colleges and Universities. Leone claims that "the current Liberal 30 per cent cut is largely inefficient as only one third of Ontario students are eligible to receive it, and it isn't available to single parents returning to school."
Leone's support for this policy has led the Cambridge Young Liberals (CYL), the official youth division of the Liberal Party in Cambridge, to initiate a campaign called "Rob's Gotta Go." The campaign is made up of various members of the CYL holding up signs with their messages to Leone. The website for the campaign claims that Hudak and Leone's proposed policy is "a completely unacceptable position [as] the very future of post-secondary education in our province could become radically altered if a Rob Leone-led Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities under a Hudak government were to come in to power."
The Liberals certainly have a point. As it currently stands, to become a university student one must first have enough money to pay for the education, while also maintaining high enough grades to be admitted into the institution in question. The Conservatives' plan would raise academic requirements solely on low-income students as their admittance into university often isn't possible without academic aid.
Additionally, this unreasonable academic burden on low-income students will likely add to a variety of other commitments these students will have to deal with. For example, low-income students are more likely to need to work a part-time job to get into university than the more economically privileged. These burdens can easily become overwhelming for students, and act as a barrier to their entrance into post-secondary institutions. The CYL are right to oppose the PC plan for education.
However, the CYL campaign against Leone seems to be a mere act of political posturing. The CYL claim that the future of education in Ontario "could become radically altered" under a PC government, yet have they not looked at what the Liberals have done in Ontario since they have been in power?
Under the McGuinty reign, tuition fees in Ontario have soared to the highest in the country. A National Post article comparing tuition rates in Canada in 2012 places the Ontario undergraduate average at just over $6,600, with the nearest province over $800 cheaper. Since 2006, the Liberals have presided over a cumulative tuition fee increase of 59 per cent, with annual fee increases ranging between 4 and 8 per cent. Students in Ontario under the Liberal reign also received the lowest percentage of government funding in the nation (59 per cent, compared to Newfoundland and Labrador which provides 77 per cent funding) as well as the highest percentage of university operating funds derived from tuition (35 per cent).
While the Conservative plan may radically alter education in the future, it is clear that Liberal policies have already made the lives of hundreds of thousands of students far more difficult during their time in power in numerous ways, including an out of control average debt in Ontario, nearly $11,000 higher than the Canadian average.
All of the arguments the CYL make against Leone are true, but they are also relevant in regards to the high tuition rates the Liberals have been behind. High tuition rates reduce accessibility, they disproportionately hurt lower income students, people of colour, and women, and they play a large part in the cycle of wealth which prevents economic progression.
While I do not support the Liberal Party of Canada, the CYL should be at the head of progressive change within the party. If they intend to lead a party which will seriously challenge the problems which plague Ontario, they need to do more than just launch political attacks on opponents. I do not believe the Young Liberals can reasonably support accessible education without internalizing their critiques to their own party.