Educational philanthropist or pariah?

Following Dalton McGuinty’s resignation from provincial politics, our panelists examine the post-secondary educational legacy he left behind


We devote years of our lives and thousands of dollars to obtain a university education, a choice that will benefit us socially and economically throughout our lives. Post-secondary education at the college or university level enriches the lives of those who learn and those who benefit from the skills of these learners.

The Ontario Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty has been smart to heavily invest in higher education to grow Ontario’s economy and to be competitive in the global economy. Such investment is particularly important as other nations expand their higher learning resources.

The government of India wants to increase post-secondary enrolment from 12 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020. China is increasing its investment in research and development by 10 per cent every year.

A study by the Martin Prosperity Institute reports that the higher education “participation rate [in Ontario] will likely need to reach 60 per cent to meet the educational requirements for future jobs.” The McGuinty government has been working for the past nine years to improve this and the Ontario Liberal Party will continue this work.

According to Statistics Canada, the current higher education participation rate in Ontario has increased from 34 per cent in 2003 to 58 per cent today — the highest in Canada. Continued investment in Ontario’s educational system will produce a globally competitive knowledge economy that adds jobs and encourages investment.Economic realisms have historically limited the ability of a worthy student to pursue a college or university education.

The primary challenge to educational accessibility is tuition cost. When the Liberal party took office in 2003, the government froze tuition for two years, followed by the passage of hard tuition caps, so that domestic students would not be hit by unexpected tuition increases during their postsecondary education tenure.

In 2010, the McGuinty government passed changes to the Ontario Student Assitance Program (OSAP) designed to increase the availability of student loans. These changes now allow 56 per cent more students to qualify for OSAP since 2004.

The secondary challenge to providing post-secondary education is space. The McGuinty government has invested over $4 billion in the construction of new classrooms, libraries, and labs on campuses across Ontario. To make sure there’s a space for every student, 200,000 new spaces have been added to Ontario’s post-secondary schools since 2003. The current government is planning to add 60,000 additional spots by constructing three new universities. At Queen’s, $40 million of provincial funding helped to enable the construction of a new medical building, benefiting students and the Kingston community.

Last year, the provincial government introduced a 30 per cent across-the-board, post-secondary undergraduate tuition grant. That means that every year, the families of five out of six students will save $1,600 per student in university and $730 per student in college.

There is still much work that needs to be done to create a fully accessible public higher education system; the McGuinty government has made enormous progress towards this goal. Tuition support programs and investments in educational infrastructure have removed many barriers to ensure equality. Investing in human capital development produces a smart innovative workforce that will attract worldwide investment.

Education isn’t free. The increase in higher education accessibility in Ontario has come at a significant financial cost, a point that opposition parties are quick to point out. However, education is one of the best investments that the McGuinty government can make. TD Economics reports the money returned to the economy through an undergraduate degree relative to a high school diploma acquired in 2000 was 11.5 per cent for men and 14.1 per cent for women. That’s a smart investment.

Patrick Allin is a Policy Director for the Queen’s University Liberal Association.

Dalton McGuinty’s legacy will be hotly contested throughout circles of talking-heads and armchair politicians. Perhaps most discussed will be the impact of his nine-year tenure as the self-styled “Education Premier.” While he does have his fans, McGuinty deserves criticism on two fronts: first, for his privileged fascination with education ‘accessibility’ irrespective of its quality; and second, his mismanagement of Ontario’s economy to the direct detriment of the same students he wanted to help.

McGuinty tackled, what Liberal’s called, the “education deficit” throughout his first and second terms with a $6.2 billion increase in post-secondary funding to improve the access to education for low-income students. He also expanded medical school spaces and invested in faculty and research.

Unfortunately, nowhere in the agreements signed by the Government was anything done addressing the quality of education received by the very people he wanted to send to university.

The accessibility of post-secondary institutions is an admirable goal, but Ontario students have been saddled with bigger class sizes by the influx of thousands of new students. This reduced the opportunity to foster the important student-professor relationship quintessential to the university experience.

McGuinty’s plan threw money at institutions without regard for the people actually using them. The solution to the ills of classroom sizes, tuition and textbook costs went unaddressed in efforts to create more ‘fair’ access. For most of us, we are left to consider the level of service we get as a result.

This issue is also inseparable from the bungling of Ontario’s finances throughout the Premier’s tenure. To pay for these increases in spending, McGuinty borrowed money against Ontario’s taxpayers, creating a deficit that was supposed to be balanced by late 2009.

This gap has never really recovered, ballooning into a $15 billion deficit with a projection of $30 billion figure.

This has had real consequences on our post-secondary experience. Universities faced massive cut-backs and layoffs in order to pay for the Liberal’s chronic overspending — further squeezing students into dank lecture halls and causing widespread labour unrest.

We are fortunate that York University’s labour implosion was an isolated incident. With more people going back to school due to hard economic times and less spending from a cash-strapped government, our universities have been forced to do less with less.

Realize that education is also a jobs issue. Even if McGuinty’s supporters are willing to overlook the stagnation of the quality of our university services, his record as a manager of the economy has put post-university work out of reach for many new graduates.

The actual ‘educating’ part of education is only half the story; we need a dynamic economy that creates the best environment for businesses to expand and matches new graduates to jobs that make the best of their talents.

Under McGuinty’s leadership, we got neither. Hydro rates in Ontario doubled in less than nine years of overregulation and green energy social engineering — forcing many businesses to shut down and move away.

We now have the most highly educated, unemployed workforce in the world, where thousands more have a university degree and nothing to show for it besides a yearbook and crippling debts. At the end of the day, this is Dalton McGuinty’s true legacy, an Ontario post-secondary system caught up in the ideology of ‘accessibility’ with no concrete solutions for post-university employment or the improvement of the university experience.

So enjoy those large class sizes and tuition increases while you still can — one day you’ll have to go out and find a job in the mess that we’ve been left with.

Stuart Clark is the President of the Queen’s University Conservative Association.

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