02/12/2013 02:41 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario Student Loans Should Be Tied To Grades, Argues Tim Hudak

TORONTO - Newly minted Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Brad Duguid is giving an "F" to a Progressive Conservative proposal to scrap a 30 per cent break on post-secondary tuition.

But he's not shooting down the Opposition's idea to tie student aid to those who get good marks.

It's part of their "colleges first" plan to skew enrolment towards colleges rather than universities in an effort to groom graduates for the job market.

Too many students are going to university, when they could be considering careers in skilled trades, said Tory Leader Tim Hudak.

"Across Ontario today, there are far too many students who have degrees and big debts and they're back on dad's couch, they've got no job to go to," he said.

"At the same time, we have a great number of jobs in the skilled trades, but nobody that's able to take them on."

Duguid said he's open to looking at those ideas, but getting rid of the tuition grant his government created isn't going to happen.

"If their plan is to take $40 million out of the pockets of middle- and lower-income students, to me that's a non-starter for our students, that's a non-starter for our system that would defeat the purpose of trying to make our system more accessible," he said.

But the program has failed in its objective, said Tory critic Rob Leone, a former assistant professor of leadership and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ont.

"Two-thirds of Ontario students don't qualify for the grant," he said.

"It's not going to students who actually need it, for example, single parents who are going back to school after raising their kids don't qualify for the grant."

Student aid should be given to those who are hitting the books and can show they're using the money to get an education that will help get them employment, he said.

The government shouldn't judge which students will do well later on in life based on their marks in college or university, said New Democrat Gilles Bisson.

"I would remind you that people like Einstein didn't do so well in mathematics when they went to university," he said.

"Some of the highest achievers in our society could be people who didn't have good marks in college or university. So I think that's, to me, not something that makes a lot of sense."

Among their proposals, the Tories want to allow and encourage colleges to offer three-year degrees and expand the dual-credit program, so students can earn credits in high school and college at the same time.

Credits should be easily transferred between colleges and universities, so college students can move directly to a university if they choose, Hudak said.

The Council of Ontario Universities said it welcomed the recommendations, noting that there are already 500 credit transfer arrangements.

A spokeswoman for the council said they involve almost all publicly funded colleges and universities, but didn't know the exact number.

But the Ontario division of the Canadian Federation of Students was less than enthusiastic. Rather than improve the quality of post-secondary education and make it more accessible, the Tory proposals would do the opposite, said chairwoman Sarah Jayne King.

"The Tory plan would continue to shift the burden for funding education onto the backs of students and their families, while forcing institutions to do more with less," she said in a release.

The Tories also proposed online post-secondary education to give access to students who can't afford to go to a campus — something the Liberals had promised but have yet to deliver.

The Conservatives also want to have teachers spend more time in the classroom and be rewarded for good teaching as well as strong research.

The ideas were among the trial balloons the Tories are floating in a series of so-called "white papers." But they aren't official party policy.

Duguid's willingness to listen to opposition ideas on education was a common refrain among Premier Kathleen Wynne's new cabinet. Many of the ministers seemed to be reading from the same script, striking a more conciliatory tone about building bridges with the opposition.

Education Minister Liz Sandals was more diplomatic in rejecting another Tory proposal to make extracurricular activities part of a teacher's job description.

Former Tory premier Mike Harris had a task force that looked at that years ago, she said.

"The reason they didn't get implemented at the time were that they weren't terribly practical," said the former school board trustee.

"The whole concept of paying for extracurricular is problematic."

Many public school teachers have put the kibosh on such voluntary activities, outraged over the government's decision to impose new two-year contracts that cut benefits and most of their wages.

Sandals promised to make extracurriculars her top priority, but was vague on how she could entice teachers to bring them back.

"This isn't really about negotiating extracurriculars," she said. "It's about we need to improve the relationship."

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