Not our new education minister, John Snobelen
By Andre Mayer
Ontario’s new education minister has been called an “old-fashioned entrepreneur,” but he is also a grade 11 dropout who says he knows nothing about running the province’s education system.
“He admitted to me that he doesn’t know anything about education,” said Heather Bishop, chair of the Ontario office of the Canadian Federation of Students.
When Conservative Premier Mike Harris announced his cabinet in June, he appointed 40-year-old John Snobelen education minister. Snobelen, a businessman, runs three companies — a waste material trucking company, a transport trucking company, and a business consulting firm — but has never held public office.
Snobelen is currently attending briefings outlining the duties and responsibility of his post. Despite his admitted inexperience, he is making an impression.
“His briefings have been anything but mundane,” said Charles Pascal, the former deputy minister of education. “He is a very innovative, creative, intelligent and dynamic leader.” Without disclosing specifics, Pascal said Snobelen’s ideas so far have been “very leading edge.”
Pascal was fired several days after being interviewed for this article. The reasons for his dismissal have not been disclosed.
Ever since federal Finance Minister Paul Martin slashed social services transfer payments, university and college students have been waiting to find out how much their tuition fees will increase over the next few years. Under the February federal budget, the provinces have been given free reign over how they will divide the funds among social service programs. But the priority post-secondary education has in the new provincial government’s agenda will affect how much tuitions will rise.
“During the (provincial election) campaign, all the talk was about public schools and secondary schools,” Bishop said. “It seems that post-secondary education is not much of a priority.”
In their July 21 budget, the Conservatives announced they will cut $16.8 million in university funding for the 1995-96 year.
Snobelen has made no public statements on what he intends to do about decreased funding for post-secondary education. However, the Conservative election platform — the “Common Sense Revolution” — did point out that in 1992, tuition fees represented 19 per cent of the cost of a university education. The document also stated that university students should be charged a “fairer share of the costs of the education they receive.”
“Universities have lost a lot of funding in the past two decades,” Patricia Adams, executive director of external relations at the Council of Ontario Universities said. “Funding for each student is about 25 per cent less (today) than in the late 1970’s.”
But many say that Snobelen is committed to making fair decisions about the hazy future of post-secondary education.
“He’s not going to sit and be the boss and see the post-secondary education situation go down the tubes,” said Pat Noble, Snobelen’s communications secretary. “He is interested in improving the situation.”
Among the Conservatives’ ideas for compensating for decreased funding are deregulating tuition fees and privatizing universities. Also under discussion is an income-contingent repayment program (ICRP) to replace the province’s existing student financial aid program, OSAP. The NDP government scrapped the ICRP plan, but the new Conservative government has re-introduced the idea.
If an ICRP is implemented, Ontario students would have access to a general loans fund, and would begin paying back their loans when they graduate.
“They attempted the ICRP system in Australia, and soon thereafter they started saying to us, ‘don’t try it (in Canada)’.” Bishop says. She says by the time Australian students finally pay off their loans, on average, men are in their mid-40’s and women are in their mid-50s.
Noble says the conservatives’ approach to education is indicative of their approach to all government programs.
“The government wants to give particular attention to giving the taxpayer the best value for their money,” he said.
Adams appreciates the difficult spending decisions facing the new government, but warns against any cutbacks to education. “If the new government is dedicated to economic revival, (post-secondary education) is an important part.”