By Allan Woods
Ontario’s education advocates were abuzz Tuesday over reports the Mike Harris government considered scrapping tuition fees shortly before the 1999 election.
The story, which appeared in The Globe and Mail, had government critics lining up to support the plan.
Although the Tories eventually scrapped the idea, they are reported to have shown that it is financially feasible to offer free tuition for undergraduate university and college students across the province.
The column quoted sources who said Natural Resources Minister John Snobelen, who served as the provincial Conservative’s education minister until 1997, supported the idea.
It said Snobelen mentioned to his party that, according to Ontario government statistics, university and community college students—which include undergraduate, professional, graduate and international students—spend about $1.4-billion in tuition in Ontario each year. The government, Snobelen pointed out, spends about $534-million dollars each on the Ontario Student Awards Program (OSAP), almost the same amount as what students spend on undergraduate and college tuition alone.
The Tories never went through with the idea, but on Tuesday, the other provincial parties were jumping at the chance to support such a plan.
“I agree with the underlying supposition,” said Liberal postsecondary education critic Marie Bountrogianni. “We’re looking at everything. We’re looking at all the models to make accessibility and issue.”
Rosario Marches, the New Democratic Party’s MPP for Trinity-Spadina, said his party has been pushing for free education for years.
“The advantages for students are tremendous,” Marchese said. “It will equalize the opportunity for students to enter university without worrying about how to pay for it.”
But Marchese doesn’t think loans and grants should be eliminated altogether because there will always be students who rely on them.
Some students lobby groups said they were caught off guard by the seemingly obvious mathematical solution.
“The idea that they might make tuition free never really occurred to us,” said Ryan Parks, executive director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, a provincial student lobby group.
Erin George, president of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, said the math used by the Conservatives looks right.
“They look like the numbers we’ve seen. We’re not questioning the numbers.”
They appear to add up. So why not eliminate tuition?
“It sounds like a good idea to me,” said RyeSAC president Cory Wright. “The fact that it’s a consideration highlights the fact that it’s a consideration highlight the fact that education is extremely important in our society.”
Wright said there is a belief in North America that students must pay for their education—an idea student activists have been challenging for some time.
“I don’t think this is a brand new thought,” he said.
Representative for the Ministry of Education, and the ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, did not return phone calls, when contracted Tuesday.
One problem with the plan to eliminate OSAP is that, for many, the money covers more than just tuition.
The article suggests that the Ontario portion of the federal student loan program—$700-million—could be used to cover living expenses for students who study away from home.
George said she doesn’t think that’s enough to cover the cost of books, food and rent, which are necessities for students living away from home.
But educational advocates are happy the idea is even being discussed, whether it be by the conservatives, Liberals or the NDP.
“If the Tories want to take credit for it that’s fine with me,” Wright said.