Former Ontario premier Bob Rae's post-secondary education review has been launched with a discussion paper that describes a system "in serious jeopardy" because the province's colleges and universities have been starved for funding.
The discussion paper presents a sharply worded description of a system that needs a significant infusion of cash, but also contains suggestions the solution may be much higher tuition fees offset by student assistance reforms borrowed from jurisdictions like Australia and Britain.
Michael Doucet, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, urged faculty and others to respond to the discussion paper by demanding that Ontario raise its per-student funding levels - currently last among the provinces - at least to the national average.
"This is a message the government needs to hear," Doucet said. "Rae's paper clearly describes a system in trouble, and the right answer is appropriate public investments, not a heavier burden on students."
Rae, former premier in Ontario's NDP government from 1990 to 1995, heads an eight-member panel appointed earlier this year by the Ontario government to study the design and funding of the province's post-secondary education system. Rae has scheduled town hall meetings and roundtable sessions across the province over the next two months. The review panel will report on its findings in January 2005.
The discussion paper is organized around five themes: accessibility, quality, system design, funding and accountability. After an overview of current conditions, it poses a series of questions related to each of the themes.
In his introduction, Rae says Ontario's system of higher education "is in jeopardy because we are on the edge of major change and the level of both public and private support is insufficient to keep Ontario as strong, competitive and socially advanced as we want to be."
He notes that "transfers to universities and colleges have fallen behind -compared to their needs, compared to the past, compared to other places in Canada and abroad."
The paper also calls attention to statistics showing Francophones, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, those with low incomes, single parents and northern Ontarians are underrepresented in colleges and universities.
Rae's interest in targeting assistance to students and families who need it the most, however, goes so far as to suggest that basic operating funding to institutions is intrinsically regressive, saying: "Most provincial spending on higher education is in the form of operating grants to institutions that tend to benefit individuals from higher-income families the most, since they are most likely to attend."
The paper also seeks comment on the income-contingent loan repayment plans in effect in Australia and soon to be implemented in the United Kingdom, suggesting that under a "go now, pay later" program, "tuition fees may be discounted or subsidized for needy students and repaid based on an affordable share of the student's income."
Doucet said OCUFA's review of worldwide research clearly indicates that income-contingent loan schemes have been used to reduce public support for higher education, while dramatically increasing tuition costs for students.
"It's clear that a majority of Ontarians believe tuition fees are already too high," Doucet said. "People supported the Liberal platform's promised tuition freeze in last year's election, and Premier McGuinty will be very unpopular if he tries to use Bob Rae's review as a smokescreen for a sudden hike in fees."