Candidates talk student issues

Kingston and the Islands candidates discuss tuition, enrolment

Image by: Alex Pickering

With the upcoming provincial election around the corner, candidates for the riding of Kingston and the Islands are taking time during the campaign period to weigh in on student issues.

On May 2, a provincial election was called by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Lieutenant Governor David Onley for June 12. Wynne asked Onley to dissolve the legislature after the Ontario New Democratic Party and Progressive Conservatives opposed the minority Liberal government’s spring budget, on the grounds that the party had failed to deliver on promises from the prior year’s budget.

The $130.4 billion Liberal budget would have increased program spending by $3 billion and brought the deficit from $11.3 to $12.5 billion.

It sought to have universities specialize further and to develop a new $42 million online learning program, Ontario Online, which would have been operational in 2015-16.

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) released pre-budget recommendations in a submission to the Ontario government on January 21, which ranged from issuing a $340 million dollar education and tuition tax credits to students, increasing the Ontario Tuition Grant from 30 to 35 per cent and extending its eligibility to Aboriginal students and students with dependents.

OUSA’s recommendations were not included in the budget.

On May 13, the organization released a revised submission calling all major Ontario political parties, including the Progressive Conservatives, the NDP and the Green Party, to freeze tuition for one year, increase funding to universities, convert tuition-related tax credits to upfront grants and extend financial aid eligibility to part-time students.

Philip Lloyd, AMS vice-president (university affairs), said the AMS will be working with AMS Academic Affairs Commissioner Colin Zarzour and OUSA to design an election strategy to promote student engagement in the upcoming election.

Over the past 20 years, youth participation in Canadian elections has declined. In 2011, the general election saw a turnout of 50 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds, the lowest of any age group.

“[We’ll be] meeting with other student committee members on OUSA … to lay out what this election strategy would be, and then working with our Marketing Communications office to make sure that students … know what is being talked about, what is in the election and how issues being discussed will affect them,” Lloyd said.

The provincial candidates for the riding of Kingston and the Islands are Mark Bain, PC candidate; Mary Rita Holland, NDP candidate; Robert Kiley, Green Party candidate; and Sophie Kiwala, Liberal candidate.

The Journal spoke to the candidates about their plans to tackle issues related to postsecondary education in the area.

Mark Bain

Progressive Conservative Party

Mark Bain said his focus remains on creating jobs for students, in accordance with party leader Tim Hudak’s One Million Jobs plan.

“One of the biggest choices that a student has to make when they’ve graduated, as I did, is where are they going to get a job?” Bain said.

“Now finding jobs is a really … big issue — there’s just none. We’re working on seven years of higher unemployment here in Ontario than the rest of Canada … that’s going to end under our government.”

One of Bain’s priorities is working on increasing the number of jobs available to youth in in the riding, he said, which has a 25 per cent youth unemployment. Official numbers aren’t available for Kingston, but provincial youth unemployment is at 16 per cent.

Bain said he advocates focusing on creating and encouraging trade jobs.

“Much like Germany has done, we’re going to make trades and working with your hands a professional skillset, and we’re going to attempt to draw more students to that skillset,” he said.

“I mean plumbers and electricians, pipe fitters, these people make a heck of a lot of money in our economy, and we can encourage students to take that direction after grade 12 knowing that they have the government that’s backing them.”

This could alleviate rising enrolment rates at Queen’s and other universities, he added.

“If we can push more [high school]graduates to move right into trades training and … education at the college level, that’s certainly going to have an impact on the number of people heading off to university.”

Hudak’s platform includes a proposal to end the 30 per cent tuition grant for postsecondary students. When asked what the party planned to do to offset tuition costs should the grant end, Bain said, “We haven’t been talking about that … we haven’t explored that at all.”

In 2013, Hudak released a white paper that advocated tying student loans to marks. Bain said that the white paper “is not in our current platform. It’s not something that we’re doing.”

“Currently the Ontario government spends a billion more than they have every month,” he said.

“I think one of the best things we can do for students right now is to clear the way, make sure government is providing them with a career and an opportunity to stay in our province.”

Mary Rita Holland

New Democratic Party

Mary Rita Holland said she considers financial accessibility to be the biggest issue facing university students.

Holland, who ran and lost in the 2011 provincial election as the NDP candidate for the area, said she plans to build on her platform points from then.

“We need to make sure that from a student’s perspective fees and things don’t go up, because we’re already paying the highest tuition fees in Canada here in Ontario,” she said.

According to Statistics Canada, undergraduate students in Quebec paid an average of $2,565 in the 2012-13 year. In Alberta, students paid an average of $5,670. In British Columbia, they paid $4,931. In Saskatchewan, the average was $6,106.

In Ontario, students paid an average of $6,975.

Holland spoke of students going into bigger amounts of debt, and students who have to work part- or full-time, causing them to delay the completion of their degree.

“We’re getting to the point where it’s almost inaccessible for many, many students to be able to get a university education,” she said.

Holland said she’s taking a widespread approach to change the financial impact of post-secondary education on students, including raising the minimum wage, freezing tuition and making student loans interest-free.

She also plans to lower hydro bills, which she says will affect students.

“In my riding, hydro rates have gone up an incredible amount, like 300 per cent … the people who have minimal income or fixed income like seniors, and I would argue even students, who have a set amount of money for a school year, if their rates go up … that’s, you know, an extra 15 water bucks a month,” she said.

She also suggested investing in transit, reducing auto insurance rates and making transit more affordable.

“In terms of investing in the educational institutions, what we’ve been seeing under the Liberals has been … less and less funding,” she said.

“Student debt in Ontario has more than doubled since 1999, so it’s at about $28,000 per student right now and that’s the highest in Canada.”

“One way that we’re going to work on that is to invest in the universities themselves so that they have the money that they need to put towards infrastructure, and I really hope that … with those measures in place you can see continued enrolment in universities but higher quality education, more accessibility and affordability.”

Holland considers growing enrolment rates at Queen’s and other universities to be a problem.

Holland, who earned two Master’s degrees from at Queen’s in 2001 and 2004, said back then seminar classes had roughly 15 students and lectures had 30 to 40. Today, lectures often exceed 100 students.

“[Students] are starting to feel like they’re just a source of income for the University, and that’s not acceptable.”

Robert Kiley

Green Party

Robert Kiley said his party’s suggestion to freeze tuition, also advocated in the 2011 provincial election, is “a small measure in a time of deep fiscal constraint to ensure that prices don’t continue to climb.”

“Tuition is an issue of financial accessibility, but there is also an issue of physical accessibility,” he added, “so where on campus when you are considering quality of education and quality of life, but also where education takes place.”

Kiley said that interaction with professors and fellow students and the life skills gained from navigating the university environment are important in the discussion of accessibility.

“We need to sustainably increase enrolment … by increasing summer capacity — so not throwing more students in already crowded classrooms and not having too many extra people in the fall and winter terms, but rather really capitalizing on the good facilities we have here during the summer semester,” he said.

He added that by focusing increased enrolment on summer students, Queen’s and other universities will be able to “encourage better class sizes that will be more conducive for interactive learning and getting to know your peers and your professors.”

Encouraging summer enrolment will also “allow us to keep university service jobs year-round, to benefit the local economy and to benefit the good people who support this university that are non-academic staff.”

The Green Party also advocates merging Ontario’s four school boards, which Kiley said will have an effect on postsecondary schools.

“It’s not really anything tangible, like it’s not a policy point insofar as it’s an action that we’re going to take to benefit postsecondary institutions, but we think that it indirectly benefits postsecondary institutions by having higher quality of learning environments … and in turn hopefully more prepared students coming into universities and colleges.”

He added that he supports continued religious education and language immersion, just not the four separate school boards.

Kingston and the Islands have been represented by all three status quo parties, but has yet to experience the leadership of the Green Party, and Kiley said he thinks it’s time.

“We think that the problems of political pandering, increased deficits and short-term economic thinking have permeated all the parties and now it is time for a Green voice, a strong local representative that could possibly hold the balance of power.”

Sophie Kiwala

Liberal Party

Sophie Kiwala thinks the most important issues facing students are the cost of tuition and finding a good job after graduation.

The Liberals have reduced 30 per cent of tuition fees for over 230,000 students in Ontario through the Ontario Tuition Grant, Kiwala said.

She added that the Liberals have lowered the cap on tuition fee increases from five per cent to three per cent for four years.

The Ontario Tuition Grant is a grant given to full-time students enrolled in a public college, university or private postsecondary school in Ontario and approved for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

The Ontario Liberals included in their spring budget an allocation of $500 million in funding for repairs at postsecondary schools.

The Liberals are currently accepting proposals from universities for satellite campus expansion, to create new campuses or expand on existing ones in underserved areas. This will provide students with an education “closer to home”, Kiwala said.

Kiwala thinks Wynne has “done quite a bit to improve” the job situation for students. Since 2003, she said that the Liberals have increased college and university funding by 81 per cent.

“At the end of the day, we really think about jobs when students graduate and we’re looking at dealing with that [in two] different areas. One is the youth jobs strategy that was launched last September, [which] created 11,000 jobs for youth and another 19,000 jobs are expected to come in,” she said.

“The other area that we’re looking at is apprenticeships and through the college of trade, we’re going to be able to take in more young people.”

Under the Liberal government, the number of apprenticeships has doubled to 120,000 since 2003.

In response to rising enrolment rates at Queen’s and other universities, Kiwala said the Liberal Party has invested $24 billion in postsecondary expansion.

She said this will create 160,000 new spaces for students to attend postsecondary institutions.

“Going online with online courses will also make a big difference as well – that way, your infrastructure is not being as taxed as it would if all of the students were actually there,” she said.

“That also allows students who cannot attend university full-time because they’re working or have family — that will help as well.”


Elections, Town-gown

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