02/02/2012 06:13 EST | Updated 04/03/2012 05:12 EDT

McGuinty's Bait-and-Switch on Lowering College Tuition Fees

Why did so many Ontario students take to the streets to protest McGuinty's decision to replace tuition fee reductions with a grant? The former would help all students and make education cost less. A grant only helps a few while the rest are left to contend with another year's tuition fee hikes.

If you were in government and found $430 million, how would you spend it?

I would use it to make education less expensive by reducing tuition fees.

During the Ontario election, Dalton McGuinty had the same idea. He promised to use $430 million to reduce tuition fees. But somehow, between Oct. 6 and today, he has figured out a way to obscure this promise and anger thousands of needy Ontario students.

Liberal candidates across Ontario promised to reduce tuition fees dozens of times to Ontario news outlets. Despite these promises, the government has started issuing a grant equivalent to 25 per cent of average undergraduate tuition fees rather than actually reducing tuition fees.

They have also introduced extremely restrictive criteria for who is eligible to receive this grant and clawed back other forms of assistance.

If you graduated from high school before 2008, regardless of your income, you are ineligible for this grant. If you're part-time, from outside of Ontario or if your parents make more than $160,000 regardless of whether or not they help pay your fees, you're ineligible for the grant. Fewer than one third of Ontario students will receive this grant and just over 10 per cent have applied to-date.

As some students receive a new grant, the majority will have to pay for higher tuition fees. This is a far cry from the promises that the Liberals made.

Normally, grants are a necessary and welcomed mechanism used to help alleviate students' financial struggles. The problem is that Dalton promised a fee reduction.

When tuition fees are reduced, funding is increased to institutions by government, and students pay less for their education. Tuition fees make up about 50 per cent of the operating budgets of colleges and universities. This is up from 20 per cent in the early 1990s.

Yes, grants can help students pay for high tuition fees. They are essentially a Band-Aid to mitigate the effect of high fees for students when they need it most. But when tuition fees no longer pose a barrier, grants are unnecessary.

This is the heart of the issue with Dalton's grant promise. A tuition fee reduction would help all students and make education cost less. A grant only helps a few while the rest are left to contend with another year's tuition fee hikes.

Next fall, tuition fees are set to rise five per cent for the seventh consecutive year. Dalton's 30 per cent tuition fee reduction has somehow turned into a five per cent increase.

Students have been calling for a tuition fee reduction since 2006 and are rightfully frustrated by this broken promise. To be willfully misleading and say that your government will reduce tuition fees during an election, and then to claim to be surprised when students are angry is simply political game playing.

Nationally, Canadians owe $15 billion in student debt. Students who borrow to finance their education often end up paying twice what students who could afford it pay.

In the aftermath of the election, it has become clear to students that this promise was little more than pandering to parents who were likely to vote Liberal.

Considering how desperate thousands of students are as a result of high fees, debt, and costs of living, playing with our hopes and dashing them once re-elected is not only unfair, it's cruel.

It is for these reasons that students marched on Wednesday in 16 towns and cities across Ontario, demanding access for all students and an end to the current practice of requiring students to pay $30,000 on average for an undergraduate education.