Open letter: Liberal marketing decision misleading for Ontario students and their families:

Queen’s Park – Peggy Sattler, Ontario NDP Training, Colleges and Universities Critic, released the following open letter to Premier Wynne outlining NDP concerns with the Liberal marketing decision to call a reorganized student financial assistant program “free tuition.”

Dear Premier Wynne,

I am writing to express my serious concerns about your government’s decision to market a reorganized student financial assistance program as “Free Tuition”.  

On Budget Day, the promise of "Free Tuition" sounded like welcome news to Ontario students and their families. Since then, legitimate questions have been raised about the Liberal plan.  What does “free” really mean? What is the real cost of tuition in Ontario? What about the cost gap between average tuition and professional programs? Will this plan do anything to address the underrepresentation of marginalized students in higher-cost programs?

On Tuesday March 15, you admitted that you were concerned about the marketing of this announcement as “Free Tuition”. You acknowledged that there are caveats and that the language is “evolving”.  Given your concerns about the factual accuracy of the messaging, why did you allow the announcement to go forward in the first place? 

Moreover, why did you announce a plan that appears to have been only partially thought out? On Budget Day, your government proclaimed “Free Tuition”.  Days later, it was “Free Tuition for thousands”.   This week, it was “Free with some explanation required”.  

 

Premier, students and families in Ontario deserve clear, transparent information about this program.  They deserve to know why the government’s plan keeps changing.  They deserve to know why you have been spending public dollars on advertising that is inaccurate.  Whether it is $3,000 in required parental and student contributions (even for low income students), no financial support for mandatory fees outside of tuition, and the barriers to access to professional programs, the promise of “Free Tuition” seems to have more caveats by the day. 

Although Statistics Canada reports $7,868 as the average cost of university tuition in Ontario, your program is based on an average of $6,180. The gap between these two numbers is significant, and is considerably wider for students who are attending specialized programs like Business or Law.  On Budget Day, your government was silent on tuition for professional programs.  Shortly after, the Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities declared that students in professional programs will “have to pay a bit more”.  This week, you admitted that the government “needs to look into this” – raising serious concerns about whether the announcement was rolled out prematurely to inject a good news story into a bad news budget.  In the end, if the government plans to only cover “average tuition,” hundreds of thousands of students will be left to foot the bill.  To make matters worse, your government claims to be interested in ensuring that more women enter Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering (STEM) programs, but covering only average tuition will provide little or no incentive for underrepresented groups to pursue specialized programs. 

The new Ontario Student Grant (OSG) program is supposed to come into play in 2017/18, exactly the same time that the 3% cap on tuition increases is set to be removed.  On Budget Day, there was no mention of indexing grants to tuition increases.  Days later, your government changed its tune and suddenly announced that grants would be indexed.  Not only is it difficult to understand how indexing can be implemented if there are no caps on tuition, but the budget makes no commitment to indexing, and Ontarians have yet to get this promise in writing.  

Your government’s record on postsecondary education funding is nothing to be proud of.  University tuition in this province will have gone up by about 108 per cent since 2003, when your government took office, and 2017. For the first time ever last year, tuition fee revenue surpassed public funding as the majority source of university operating budgets. On a per student basis, Ontario universities receive the lowest level of public funding in all of Canada. Ontario has now ranked last on per student funding in Canada for six consecutive years, and your budget does nothing to address the crushing debt-loads that Ontario students have been forced to carry for years after they graduate.   

Premier, New Democrats support measures to make postsecondary education more accessible. However, we also believe that government has a responsibility to provide accurate information about the programs it delivers. Given that it is patently incorrect to refer to the OSG program as “Free Tuition,” I am calling on you to stop using public dollars to advertise it as such. 

I ask that you address the concerns laid out in this letter and look forward to hearing from you.

 

Sincerely,

[signed in original]

Peggy Sattler, MPP

London West