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Tuition increase a sign of an underfunded system

Recently while taking the subway in the morning rush there was an almost business-as-usual delay that left hundreds, perhaps even more than a thousand people crammed onto the platform as we waited for the train.

When the train did finally arrive, it was packed to the gills with people who had squeezed on at the previous station. Between the two trains there were more than 2,000 uncomfortable and annoyed people saying "excuse me" who had paid the $3 fare to ride a system that is straining from years of underfunding. 

Ontario's post-secondary system has parallels to public transit as it too is a system designed in the 1960s that keeps asking people to pay more as it becomes more crowded and people grumble about the state of things. 

Like transit, the main problem that the funding for post-secondary education hasn't kept up with the rising demand on an aging system. According to the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (TCU), there are 200,000 more post-secondary students today than there were in 2003 and the numbers keep climbing. 

Ontario has seen perhaps the largest expansion of post-secondary education in Canadian history as part of the Ontario government's Reaching Higher plan that has seen enrolments increase at over five times the rate in the 1990s according to TCU. 

The other thing that keeps going up is tuition. According to the College Student Alliance, tuition has risen 22 per cent since 2006. The Canadian Federation of Students -- Ontario puts the increase of tuition at "as much as 71 per cent" for the entire post-secondary system, though that number is the high end of a wide range of programs.

The Ontario government recently announced a new tuition framework that caps tuition increases at 3 per cent for most college and undergraduate university programs and 5 per cent for high-demand college and graduate programs.

So tuition will again go up next year, just not as fast as the previous years when the government set 5 per cent and 8 per cent caps.

However, per-student funding has not kept up. It peaked around 2007 and has been falling ever since in real dollars. This has created a growing funding gap between the costs of operating the post-secondary system and the revenues institutions are bringing in.

"On the question of how much tuition should go up, clearly less is better than more," said Dan Wright, Senior Vice President Corporate Administration at George Brown College (GBC). "If the government doesn't pay for it, and they want a quality education, then there’s only one place left to go -- but students can’t afford it either."

According to Colleges Ontario, in 2011 total per-student funding in operating grants was $6,060 while college students pay about $2,200 in tuition for a typical program. Universities in comparison received $8,519 in operating grants according to the Ontario Confederation of University and Faculty Associations and undergraduate students paid an average of $6,815 in tuition in 2011 according to Statistics Canada. 

"All students across Ontario deserve a break," said Mohammad Ali Aumeer, director of Education and Equity for the Student Association of GBC. "All students in a publicly funded college or university are paying way too much for their post-secondary education. We need a break. We need relief now."

Aumeer thinks funding post-secondary education needs to be a political priority for the Ontario government, and isn’t shy about saying how it should be paid for.

"We have a progressive tax system. A family that makes $160,000 is more affluent, should they benefit from a tuition decrease as well?” said Aumeer. "Those that are in the higher income brackets, where more or less the more you make the more you pay. You pay your share into healthcare, into education. Our system needs to be publicly funded, it needs to come from taxpayers."

This is the same sort of frank discussion that’s finally happening about transit and is a point that has been, sometimes grudgingly, conceded when talking about elementary and secondary schools, healthcare, fire services, policing and other public services we take for granted. 

If we want basic public services that socialize the risks of a modern society, so we don’t live in a Mad Max style libertarian dystopia, then we have to pay for them. And while the corporations who have benefited from tax cuts should be the first in line to pony up, eventually we all have to pay something and the rich should pay more than the poor.

While the colleges and universities will no doubt increase tuition as much as possible in the new framework, it's a good idea to listen to Wright when he says, "I spent four years at the Ministry of Finance, and I have to tell you the squeaky wheel does get a bit more grease."

It's going to take more than a bit of grease to fix Ontario’s post-secondary system and students have every reason to do a lot more more than squeak. 


This article was originally published in The Dialog and is reprinted here with permission. 


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