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Ontario Students Ready to Give Drummond a "D"

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All Ontarians recovering from a Valentine's-induced hangover (and those of us who aren't) have a compelling reason to haul themselves out of bed tomorrow morning. The much-anticipated budget report of Don Drummond will be released and the fruit of a $1,500-per-day pay cheque will recommend what to cut, who to lay off, and how much to pay people now and in their retirement.

Not surprisingly, insiders in each sector are anticipating the worst -- especially those of us in education.

Already the news seems grim. Christina Blizzard from Sun Media's QMI Agency wrote that Ontarians should expect to see full-day kindergarten recommended for the guillotine. Those of us in the post-secondary education sector are anticipating recommendations for cuts that are similarly significant.

Drummond is somewhat of an insider in the post-secondary system and is familiar with the chronic issues of underfunding and student debt. This means that if he makes recommendations to find savings in the post-secondary sector, they will likely be more complex than simply recommending a wage freeze.

In addition to his experience as a former TD Bank executive, Drummond holds an endowed chair in public policy at Queen's University. He was a member of Bob Rae's 2005 higher education review panel, which called for the implementation of tuition fee deregulation and income-contingent loan repayment schemes.

Deregulation would have allowed institutions to increase their tuition fees by any amount. To justify this, the majority of middle class students would have access to more loans and take on more debt. While this plan would likely see some new grants given to the poorest students, it would also throw the door wide open for private lenders to profit from the new lending market. The latter would exacerbate social inequalities by forcing low-income people to pay the most for their education through a longer period of interest-accruing student debt repayment.

Students were critical of Rae's report and the government did not enact its more extreme recommendations. Instead, McGuinty managed to normalize perpetual tuition fee hikes leading to the highest fees in the country.

In May 2010, Drummond released his own report on post-secondary education, co-authored with fellow TD Bank economist Shahrzad Mobasher Fard. They acknowledge that funding reductions have placed a huge strain on students' ability to pay for higher tuition fees. They reference the recommendations in the contentious book, Academic Transformations, and suggest that shorter study periods, fewer tenured professors, and teaching-only universities should be mandated to save money. The book was criticized by faculty, staff and students after its release in 2009.

If the 2005 and 2010 reviews are indicative of Drummond's current thinking on post-secondary education, Ontarians should expect that his Commission on the Reform of Ontario's Public Services will not simply recommend massive cuts to the sector.

Instead, we can expect any of the following: a call for changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Plan (OSAP) to target aid and debt more directly; a call to review post-secondary teachers' pensions; wage restraint for non-unionized college and university workers; hiring fewer professors and the creation of cheaper forms of educational delivery such as online education; and the re-emergence of three-year degrees. He is likely to also take aim at McGuinty's new tuition grant program.

We may also see another attempt to sell income-contingent loan repayment schemes.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, students will find themselves among nurses, unemployed Ontarians, teachers, early childcare educators, social workers, and millions of other Ontarians who will find themselves defending their sector from Drummond's recommended cuts.

While the report's recommendations may be possible to predict, so too will the opposition that we will raise. Together, defenders of public services are going to try to make it politically impossible for McGuinty to implement any of the cuts or regressive policy changes that Drummond recommends.