Voters need to be vigilent to ensure issues addressed

First published:
September 10, 2003

With a provincial election underway and only 28 days (now less) to debate the issues, voters will need to finely tune their radar to ensure important issues are being discussed, questions answered and meaningful solutions presented.

Take for example, Sir Sandford Fleming College President Brian Desbiens concerns about the funding of post-secondary education, and in particular community colleges. He says colleges are reeling from a decade of underfunding. Across Ontario, enrolment has increased by 49 per cent, while per-student funding has dropped by 44 per cent, factoring in inflation.

In its platform, Public Power, the NDP commit to cutting college and university tuition by 10 per cent and remove fiscal barriers. It also proposes to introduce a new student assistance plan and, for those not going on to post-secondary, a job placement, training apprenticeship program. Plans for private universities in Ontario would be cancelled.

The Tories are guaranteeing a place for every willing student in college or university in their platform, The Road Ahead. They are promising plenty of money: $2.6 billion for new student spaces; another $300 million into the colleges and universities; a student assistance program will get $400 million; and allowing internationally based schools to offer university degree programs and grants diplomas in Ontario as long as they meet standards.

The Liberals, in their platform, say they will expand post-secondary capacity by at least 10 per cent over five years, making room for 50,000 more students. They will fund recruiting of new faculty for colleges and university and invest in graduate scholarships. They will freeze college and university tuition for at least two years. Financial help will be available through pre-paid tuition programs and tuition waivers for new students.

But will any of these measures have the desired impact. Students, parents and taxpayers want to see those in the system to get a good education and end up with meaningful employment.

Students, on average, will graduate with a $25,000 debt at community college for a three-year program. University is about the same for the same period, a higher debt load faces those who take a four-year program or graduate studies.

But is the solution simply lowering tuition or giving away an education? In both college and university, about 55 per cent of students will drop out of a course of study in the first year. Some will leave school at this point, while others will transfer into other programs. The result can mean additional years at school, while students shop for a career (many times a course they can pass).

The problem is exacerbated by the age of students. With the double cohort, younger and younger students are coming into their first year of study with little idea of what they want to do. As shown by the transfer rates, it is apparent they are still shopping for their future.

Please understand there is nothing wrong with this and one purpose of teaching these young people is to assist them in making good choices for their future. It is also amazing to see an increasing number of mature students enrolling in programs. They tend to be excellent learners; high achievers and their focus and desire often provide necessary leadership in the classroom.

But taxpayers should not be footing the bill.

Yes, all parties should put more money into the college system. The need for classroom space, smaller class sizes, more faculty, more money for research and equipment is necessary.

But the argument for tuition needs to be considered carefully. Students should be encouraged to work prior to going into post secondary education to be able to pay in advance for education. If loans are necessary, then a requirement should be a work record of at least one year to qualify for loans or grants.

Far too many students come on the “Study now; pay later” plan. This quickly becomes the “party now; study later; pay forever plan”

By adding some requirement for work in advance of providing loans or grants, student would be given time to mature and become more focused. They might also have time to carefully consider a career path, making them more dedicated to their studies.

The overall 2002 default rate on student loans for Ontario postsecondary institutions is 13.9 per cent, a decrease of 1.5 percentage points from the 2001 default rate of 15.4 per cent. The 2002 default rates for each sector range from 7.5 per cent for universities, to 16.0 per cent for colleges, to 24.2 per cent for private career colleges and 8.2 per cent for other private and publicly funded institutions.

The ministry’s goal is to drop the rate to 10 per cent.

What is also stunning is the number of students who do not pay back loans is three to four times higher when they drop out mid-year compared to those who complete a course of study.

There is a lot of pressure students face from family, guidance counsellors and society to go immediately off to post-secondary. However, the college (and probably the university system) would greatly benefit from students who are ready for the rigors of post-secondary education and have a personal plan with a clear focus.

Industry would also benefit from this, too. Students would come to them with some workplace experience and an education.  They would also have better life skills for having taken a year or two to save up for school or qualify for assistance. They would be more desirable and mature as workers.

MR. Desbiens is correct in calling for more funds. And the various parties have some interesting policies. But, it is a bit Pollyanna to believe that making tuition cheaper and more easily accessible is a solution for students, colleges and universities. Our province might benefit from a little less rush to keep them in school.

If the issues if tuition can be this complex, what about the other policies being provided by the parties.

Another quick example is the offer of money to post-secondary institutions. Often universities get far more dollars then the college system. And yet, it is the college system is the most highly focused in preparing students for the workplace because of its hands-on training compared to the theoretical training of undergraduate program given at universities. Maybe there should be more co-operation between the two systems in preparing undergraduate students for the workforce. This is a vastly oversimplified synopsis, but an important debate at heart.

The candidates also need to explain their policies more clearly. And it would be nice to see a more comprehensive discourse to resolving issues. Each party’s platform has merit, but do they truly solve the deeper problems and use taxpayers’ money more wisely.

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