Chris Bentley, Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities was the guest expert for today's education forum, answering your questions on the province's tuition rates, apprenticeships and the college strike, among other issues.
Q: Is your government concerned with the fact that hundreds of students wishing to become say teachers, or doctors, leave the province because they can't get a space in those programs in an Ontario university? What plans do you have to change our brain drain?
A: Our Reaching Higher plan represents $6.2 billion in new investments for post-secondary education - the largest multi-year investment in Ontario’s higher education system in 40 years. Our plan will ensure that more Ontarians have the opportunity to pursue higher quality postsecondary education that is affordable and accessible. When a province fully maximizes its human potential, it fully maximizes its economic potential and everyone benefits.
We are increasing first-year undergraduate medical enrolment by 23 per cent. This includes the introduction of 104 new first-year medical school spaces, between 2005-06 and 2008-09, and 56 new first-year spaces at Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) in 2005-06.
This enrolment expansion includes the creation of new undergraduate medical campuses in 4 communities; St. Catharines and Kitchener-Waterloo (McMaster), Windsor (UWO) and Mississauga (U of T).
The Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), with campuses in Thunder Bay and Sudbury, is attracting physicians to northern communities. It began admitting 56 students per year in 2005-06.
Our government invested $5M in operating funding and $5M in capital in 2004-05 to increase the number of Family Medicine residency positions at Ontario medical schools by 70 percent, to help the province meet the shortage of family practitioners.
In 2004, our government introduced a new centralized assessment service for international medical graduates known as IMG-Ontario - a service that helps IMGs with training opportunities in Ontario. In 2005-06, we’re continuing to offer 200 training opportunities for our international medical graduates each year – more than double the number of training spots in 2003-04. Education Minister Gerard Kennedy and I agree on our need to ensure that Ontario has a sufficient number of qualified teachers. That is why our government has allocated funding to increase the number of spaces in faculties of education. In December 2003, our government announced funding of $7.5 million to maintain 1,000 spaces for the 2004/05 academic year, and in the May 18, 2004 Provincial Budget, we allocated an additional $7.5 million to provide an additional 1,000 spaces in faculties of education for the 2005/06 academic year. The addition of these spaces maintains funded enrolment in consecutive teacher education programs at 6,500 spaces, and represents a total new investment of $15 million by our government in support of teacher education. Be assured that I will continue to work with Minister Kennedy to support high-quality teacher education in the province.
More generally, under the Reaching Higher plan we are increasing graduate enrolment by 14,000 by 2009-10, a 65 per cent increase. This important increase will ensure more opportunities for advanced education in both research stream and professional stream programs that are vital to Ontario's economic prosperity.
Q: What is your government doing to address the shortage of skilled workers? It seems to me that rather than pouring money into universities you should be sending it to the trades.
A: On November 23, 2005, I signed historic Labour Market Development and Labour Market Partnership Agreements with the federal government.
Together, these two agreements will allow the ministry to integrate labour market programs in Ontario and expand programs to provide more training, apprenticeship and labour market services.
The LMDA will provide Ontario with approximately $580 million annually, and the LMPA funding transferred to Ontario will grow to an annual total of $157 million by 2009-10 to help serve Ontarians. In addition, the federal government will spend an amount growing to $157 million in Ontario through federal labour market programs.
The McGuinty government recognizes the importance of apprenticeship and has made a significant commitment that will ensure Ontario’s apprenticeship system provides Ontario with the skilled workforce needed to compete in today’s economy.
The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities has made a commitment to increase the number of new apprenticeship registrations by 7,000 to a total of 26,000 annually in 2007-08.
We are implementing a strategy to increase the number of apprenticeships in the province by encouraging greater participation among both employers and young people. We are bringing our training delivery partners together to promote skilled trades so that students are aware of the full range of rewarding occupations that are available.
Our government has introduced several initiatives to increase access to the skilled trades, including: an Apprenticeship Training Tax Credit; expanding academic upgrading options for early high school leavers; an Apprenticeship Scholarship and Employer Signing Bonus; and an expansion of the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program and the Pre-apprenticeship Program.
We have also expanded the Co-op Diploma Apprenticeship Program. The Co-op Diploma Apprenticeship Program combines a college diploma program and apprenticeship training leading to a Certificate of Qualification. Workplace training is an integral and significant component of the Co-op Diploma Apprenticeship Program.
Q: One of the key issues in the current strike is a decline in the quality of applied learning at the colleges (increased class sizes, less classroom time, fewer full-time faculty, equipment shortages, aging infrastructure and equipment). This has been driven by historic underfunding. Why are the provincial funding grants to full-time students in college programs only about 75 per cent of the grants to full-time students in university programs? Is your government planning to correct this funding imbalance between the university and the college systems?
A: Our government has made post-secondary education a priority. This is why our government has invested $6.2 billion through the Reaching Higher Plan, the most significant multi-year investment in Ontario’s higher education system in 40 years.
In 2005-2006, colleges will receive $87.3 million through the new Quality Improvement Fund. We will work in partnership with institutions to achieve results for our increased investment in post-secondary education and provide students with a quality education.
Q: Why is there no policy link between tuition rates and the market demand for graduates? We need more engineers and doctors, yet these programs are among the least affordable. Is that a sensible approach to a skills shortage? Right now, tuition pricing is based on education as a marketable commodity that students buy, but are those price signals working for Ontario?
At my school, the median family income for new medical students jumped from the high $60K to more than $120K after only five or six years of deregulation. I'm sure you can find this kind of data easily enough.
Given the evidence, is it smart policy to limit the recruiting pool for people the province desperately needs? Shouldn't we put the heaviest tuition support into areas with severe labour shortages (nursing, medicine, machinists, etc.) and less support for lower-demand disciplines (fine arts, journalism, etc.)?
The current argument about post-graduate economic rewards seems to limit enrolment to those with the least to gain from access to high-demand professions.
A: The McGuinty government has a plan for providing the highest quality post-secondary education, accessible on the basis of ability to learn, not ability to pay.
For institutions to increase tuition fees at all, they must agree to participate in the Student Access Guarantee, which assures that no qualified Ontario student will be prevented from attending Ontario's public colleges and universities due to lack of financial support programs.
For programs with higher tuition fees, such as medicine, institutions have local student assistance funds available for students to ensure accessibility.
Tuition rates are set by college and university governing boards, and reflect factors such as cost of operating the programs, demand for instructional spaces, high employer demand for graduates and high income for employed graduates.
This is a regulated framework for all publicly funded programs. That means capped, predictable increases for all publicly funded programs.
Within the overall institutional cap of 5 per cent, the new framework allows for tuition fee differentiation based on program and program year. The new tuition fee policy continues to recognize that some programs experience high demand for both program spaces and graduates. Graduate and professional programs are permitted to increase tuition by 8 per cent for students in the first year of their program, and 4 per cent in subsequent years, must meet criteria such as demand for instructional spaces, high employer demand for graduates and high income for employed graduates.
Q: An educated workforce is essential to Ontario's future in this fast-paced and ever changing world, and right now too many students are prevented from attaining a higher education due to the high and increasing tuition fees. If a poor country like Cuba can provide free education for all qualified students right through university, why can't a rich province like Ontario afford to provide free university and college education to all those who show an appropriate aptitude?
A: In 2005-06, the government identified post-secondary education as a priority and announced the Reaching Higher Plan, a plan to improve both the quality and affordability of post-secondary education. The Reaching Higher Plan is based on the principle that post-secondary education benefits society as a whole as well as the individual. It is also based on a goal of providing the highest quality post-secondary education to support Ontario's economy and individual Ontarian's prosperity.To this end, the Reaching Higher Plan includes an investment of $6.2 billion by the end of 2009-10, the biggest single investment in Ontario's post-secondary sector in 40 years. Further, the government's tuition fee policy acknowledges that a post-secondary education provides a significant personal benefit to the student and asks that students make an investment towards their own future. We are asking students to contribute one dollar for every three dollars the government is contributing.
Our government’s recent announcement regarding the new tuition fee policy provides a framework that means the average full time fee increases will be limited to about $200 for university students, and $100 for college students. Furthermore, tuition fee increases must be tied to quality improvements and the student access guarantee that ensures that no qualified student is prevented from seeking a post-secondary education for lack of student assistance programming. Quality improvements and access for students will be ensured through multi-year accountability agreements that every institution will be required to sign.
Q: Are you going to increase the fee for international students as last year? Why so much? This has no relation with the inflation in Toronto or the fee paid by the Canadian student. You are pricing yourself out the market! I let my daughters study in Canada, also to learn about non-European social and economic organization, but unfortunately in Ontario the international students can not work outside the campus and in the university the preference is given to Canadian students. In these conditions my daughters can not have a "full immersion" in the Canadian social life. Why can't international students work part-time in Canada? Is this something your government is willing to address?
A: This tuition fee framework applies only to students eligible for funding from the government of Ontario. Fees for international students are set by the institutions themselves, and are not regulated by us.
The government of Ontario recognizes that international students enrich post-secondary learning experiences in Ontario colleges and universities, and agrees that the ability to work off-campus would lighten the financial burden for international students. That is why we have lobbied the federal government to change this policy since we came into office. The federal government’s April 18, 2005 decision to allow international students to work off-campus had been eagerly anticipated by the Ontario government, universities, colleges, and international students.
On November 28th, 2005, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced an agreement with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Canada that would allow international students to work off campus while enrolled at an eligible post secondary institution in the province. As part of this agreement and before students can apply for an off-campus work permit, the province was required to sign agreements with each eligible Ontario postsecondary educational institution that wished to participate in the program.
At this time, I am pleased to report that the province has signed agreements with all 47 Ontario colleges and universities. However, exactly when students can begin to apply and work off-campus still unknown as the program is subject to federal funding approval.
Q: Is there any relief for past university graduates who are saddled with debt to the banks for their education? What a way to start your life with that around your neck for years to come.
A: There are several government programs available to assist students repay their government loans:
Ontario Student Opportunity Grant: The Ontario Student Opportunity Grant (OSOG) limits Ontario students’ annual repayable Canada-Ontario Integrated Student Loan debt to $7,000 for a two-term academic year and $10,500 for a three-term academic year. OSOG is applied to the students’ debt when the academic year has been completed and all income provided on the Ontario Student Assistance Program application has been verified with the Canada Revenue Agency.
Interest Relief: Interest relief is available to borrowers who are unable to repay their loans because of low income. Borrowers are eligible for up to 30 months of Interest Relief and an additional 24 months of extended Interest Relief if additional help is required during the five-year period immediately following completion of studies. While receiving Interest Relief, borrowers are not required to make any principal or interest payments on their loans. The provincial and federal governments pay the interest on the borrowers’ behalf. The income thresholds at which borrowers are eligible for interest relief were increased by 5 per cent in 2005-06.
Debt Reduction in Repayment: Borrowers who exhaust interest relief and are still unable to meet their repayment obligations may be eligible for debt reduction. The federal government remits up to $26,000 of students’ Canada Student Loan debt. The first reduction, which occurs after a borrower has been out of school for at least five years, is up to $10,000. If following the first reduction, the borrower is still experiencing financial difficulties, a second reduction of up to $10,000 is available. A final reduction of up to $6,000 may also be granted. Each reduction has to be at least one year apart.
The provincial Debt Reduction in Repayment program implemented in 2004-05, which is similar in design to the federal program, provides up to $8,700 in remission. The first reduction is up to a maximum of $4,300 and the two subsequent reductions are up to a maximum of $2,200 each.
More detailed information on the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant, Interest Relief and Debt Reduction in Repayment programs is available on the OSAP website.
Tax Measures: The Ontario and Canada portions of the Canada-Ontario Integrated Student Loan are closely aligned with the Income Tax Act (Canada). Borrowers can claim tax credits against taxable income for interest paid on publicly-subsidized student loans.
Revision of Terms: Typically, borrowers have up to 9 ½ years to repay their student loans. Borrowers can request a revision of terms through the National Student Loan Service Centre to extend the repayment period for up to 15 years, thereby lowering the required monthly payment.
Q: Why doesn’t the province give us a break on excluding scholarship income from the calculation for the Ontario Health Premium? Because of my scholarship income I have to pay the Ontario Health Premium. This hardly seems fair, wouldn’t you agree?
A: The OHP structure has been carefully designed to be fair and equitable. By calculating the OHP amounts using taxable income, this means that the premium is based on ability to pay, without discriminating between different sources of income. This ensures that students and people with wage income are treated in the same way, which is fair for everybody. Individuals with income under $20,000 are exempt and, above that, premium levels rise with income.
Every penny of the OHP is being spent on improving our health care system. Having a well functioning system is vital for all Ontarians. Without that system and support, hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses would not be able to provide quality individual care.
Furthermore, dedicating the revenue collected through the OHP to health spending allows the province to make investments in other programs, such as education. Implementation of the OHP ensures that rising health care costs do not crowd out the funding of other important government programs.
Q: As a faculty member concerned about the inability of both the colleges and OPSEU to reach an agreement after 14 months, I do believe you and your government's lack of leadership on this issue will guarantee the strike will continue. Please tell us exactly when your government will do what is clearly needed: legislate college faculty back to work. If you do indeed care about students, I do think you as the minister responsible need to demonstrate leadership so that this strike can be over by next week. I want to be back in the classroom now, not three weeks from now.
A: Students are everyone's first concern and we are pleased that the colleges have developed a semester completion strategy. At the same time, we want to see faculty back at work and we urge the parties to re-start their discussions. We have highly skilled mediators from the Ministry of Labour ready to help. We believe that the best solution is one worked out by the parties themselves.
Q: When the Mike Harris government was in power, there was some talk of allowing private universities in Ontario. What has happened to those plans? Did any open? What is your government’s position on that issue?
A: In April 2000, the former government announced that it was expanding access to degree programs in Ontario. The Post-secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act, 2000 (PSECE Act) was proclaimed in force effective October 1, 2001. A few private organizations have taken advantage of the opportunity to offer degree programs in Ontario.
Q: I recently received my doctoral in political science (public policy) and have a one year contract at a local university. I am teaching third-year public policy classes with class sizes as follows: 123; 134; 223. This is a huge problem and the fact is that universities are not hiring enough faculty to keep class sizes reasonable. Despite retirements, some universities have imposed hiring freezes. Moreover, they are all relying on sessional or contract instructors to teach core courses in various programs. Sessional instructors receive only about $5,000 per course. This is the job market recent grads are facing and the learning environment that students are experiencing: Instructors passing through the university instructing large classes with little support. I have decided that I will not pursue an academic career under these circumstances and a number of my colleagues who are about to complete their doctorates are trying to plan non-academic careers.
With policy expertise we are fortunate to have options. My question is: Given the importance of education in the new economy, how can your government justify underfunding universities in such a way that the quality of the education is suffering and graduates like me are opting for other types of careers? I appreciate that political scientists generally don't invent things but we do produce students with critical thinking and analytical skills.
A: Our Reaching Higher Plan represents $6.2 billion in new investments for our colleges and universities over the next five years - the most significant multi-year investment in Ontario’s higher education system in 40 years. This is an investment in Ontario’s future prosperity. It will revitalize Ontario’s higher education and training system for today’s students and future generations. Our investments will help institutions address the very kinds of issues you have identified – each in accordance with local institutional needs and priorities.
In November 2005, the Premier and I announced the new Quality Improvement Fund that will, in addition to other quality improvements, help institutions hire more support staff and faculty so that students have better access to their instructors. In 2005-2006, colleges will receive $87.3 million and universities will receive $124.2 million. To receive funding, colleges and universities will sign accountability agreements that spell out improvements to be made and the results to be achieved. We will work in partnership with institutions to achieve results for our increased investment in post-secondary education. We anticipate that universities and colleges will want to invest in additional faculty and we will be working with our institutions in the coming months to help them achieve this.
Q: Dear Minister Bentley: Are you aware that thousands of skilled, extremely qualified, and dedicated college workers lack benefits, any semblance of job security, are not covered by any employment standards, or by any limits on the amount of work that can be required of them by their superiors? Do you think that this situation, which guarantees insecure, stressed and overworked college staff, is the best route to providing quality education to Ontario's students? Could you explain why your government has not yet moved to give Ontario's 16,000 part-time college employees the right to unionize? (Or at least to legislate some minimum standards to govern their working conditions?) If your government is truly committed to providing quality education to Ontario's post-secondary students, why have you been content to sit by and watch the community college's management force a strike? When will your government step in and take real steps to protect quality education in this province? Thank you for your time.
A: Our government is committed to ensuring college students receive a quality education and all faculty members should be recognized for their hard work and commitment that contribute to this quality education system. There has been, and will continue to be, a substantial investment in colleges and universities through our government's Reaching Higher Plan.
The best solution in a labour dispute is one that is worked out by the parties themselves. We have highly skilled mediators from the Ministry of Labour who are available to assist the parties. We urge the parties to get back to the bargaining table.