CAUT and the Laurentian University Faculty Association organized a day-long series of hearings in Sudbury Feb. 28 that focussed on the future of post-secondary education in the community.
Faculty association president Jean-Charles Cachon noted that the large francophone population of the region has particularly suffered from cutbacks in education spending, and warned that gains made in the 1980s and early 1990s are now being rolled back because the provincial government is not adequately funding French-language college and university programs.
"The recent closure of the Collège des Grands Lacs is a good example of this," Cachon explained. "The failure of this French-language institution was not because of the lack of interested students, but because of the lack of adequate funding from the provincial and federal governments. It has been the whole francophone community that has been failed."
Aurèle Tellier, president of the Conseil scolaire du district du Grand Nord de l'Ontario agreed that French-language education is facing enormous challenges in the province.
"The underfunding of our colleges and universities, the increase in tuition fees and school taxes that are below the provincial average in our region have combined to create a less than enviable situation for francophones in Northern Ontario," Tellier said. "However, we believe that our students have a right to receive their post-secondary education in their mother tongue. They have a right to demand that post-secondary institutions offer programs in French that are funded equitably."
Several students also appeared before the hearings and described the challenges they face in struggling with higher tuition fees.
"With my loans currently at about $25,000, it is going to be a real struggle for me to pay them off," said Sophie Gauthier of the Association des étudiants francophones. "Education is not really accessible for low-income or middle-income people. From my perspective, I'm seeing that education is more and more available only to those with a lot of money."
Michael Page, district officer with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, warned that severe cuts to the province's public school system will "ripple and surge" into the post-secondary education system in the next few years.
"The funding formula to secondary schools in Ontario and particularly Northern Ontario has been devastating to the quality of education offered in our province," Page said. "This funding formula will impact the colleges and universities, who have not had the time to adjust to students graduating from a new curriculum, let alone the inconsistency of which this curriculum has been applied to students across the province."
The president of the Sudbury District Labour Council, Sandy Bass, similarly blamed the provincial Conservative government for "wreaking havoc" on the entire education system in Ontario.
"The agenda of the Tories is very clear," Bass warned. "That agenda is to increasingly privatize the education system in this province and to open it up to profit-making opportunities for their corporate friends."
David Robinson, a professor of economics at Laurentian, argued the provincial government must spend more on all levels of education in order to prepare for an aging population.
"Spending on education, especially higher education improves the situation for current and future pensioners," Robinson said. "Spending on education now is essentially the same as investing in pension plans. When we invest in the education of youth, we are increasing human capital and then living off the return of that capital."
He said governments in Canada have "failed dismally" in recognizing the importance of spending more on education, and recommended the federal government play a lead role in funding universities and colleges.
"It would make a lot of sense for the federal government to invest in higher education by pay-ing all of students' costs in exchange for a small increase in income taxes. Why, after all, should Saskatchewan taxpayers pay for the education of students who move to Ontario and pay taxes to (Ontario Finance Minister) Jim Flaherty?"
Molly Hancock of the Committee to Remember Kimberly Rogers also appeared before the hearings to highlight the enormous hurdles that now face lower-income people who want a university or college education.
In an emotional presentation, Hancock told the story of Kimberly Rogers, a Sudbury woman on social assistance, who began attending Cambrian College in 1996 while receiving both student loans and social assistance, something the provincial government of Mike Harris made illegal the same year.
After graduating from Cambrian, Rogers was convicted of welfare fraud and sentenced to six months of house arrest. For the first three months of her arrest, she was denied income of any kind. Rogers and her unborn child died in her apartment in August 2001 during a severe heat wave.
"Kimberly paid a heavy price for trying to achieve a better future for herself and her child," Hancock said. "The regular increase in tuition fees is restricting post-secondary education to those who can draw on secure financial support from family. Is this the kind of society you and I want to live in? Education only for the privileged?"