Canada's students gathered in the tens of thousands last week to protest rising tuition and demand better access to postsecondary education during the 6 February National Day of Action. The protests, held in most major cities in Canada, were organized by the Canadian Federation of Students under the slogan: "Freeze Tuition Fees: Education is a right."

Barb Sharanowski joined the 4000-strong demonstration outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto. A graduate student in forensic entomology at the University of Saskatchewan, Sharanowski echoed the sentiment of other protestors, asserting that the escalation of tuition fees was a step in the wrong direction. Sharanowski anticipates that it will take many years to repay the $51,000 she has accumulated in loans while attending university. "By raising tuition fees, [the universities] are not giving us a choice anymore," says Sharanowski. And she asserts that fee increases have already reached the point at which they're blocking less privileged students who want to attend university.

The current storm of debate over deregulation of tuition fees, which provide around one-third of the operating funds for Ontario universities, is nothing new for graduate and professional program students in Ontario, who have borne the burden of deregulated fees since 1998. Late last year, however, the debate erupted in the undergraduate domain, fuelled by reports that Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Dianne Cunningham, was considering a proposal put forward by Queens University to set undergraduate tuition levels above the existing 2% annual cap on increases specified by the provincial legislature. The rationale behind the proposal, according to Queen's Principal, William Leggett, is that with greater autonomy, the university would be better able to maintain and even significantly enhance the quality of academic education and at the same time maintain full accessibility with increases to student assistance. Queen's Pathfinder Proposal, as it was called, drew a great deal of support from a number of other universities in the province, which have been predisposed to the idea of full tuition fee deregulation for some time.

The Ontario government announced on 24 January 2002 that it had, for the time being, rejected the Queen's University proposal. Nevertheless, the Pathfinder Proposal succeeded in putting the core issue of chronic underfunding of Ontario's universities on the political radar screen and clearly in the public's eye. Ontario universities are feeling the pinch after years of sustained cuts in provincial operating budgets--cuts that, when combined with the effects of inflation and the existing cap on increases in undergraduate tuition fees, have left the universities with little room to maneuver. According to reports prepared by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), although the level of provincial government funding to universities in all 10 provinces has steadily declined since 1988, it has declined fastest in Ontario, to the point at which Ontario's universities receive 22% less per student than universities in the other nine provinces. "Ontario's universities are working hard to provide a quality education to students with operating grants that are well below the Canadian average," says Paul Davenport, president of the University of Western Ontario.

And to further complicate matters, Ontario's universities are bracing themselves for an anticipated 90,000-student surge in undergraduate enrollments by 2010. This surge, the so-called double cohort, is an expected consequence of the government's recent decision to abolish grade 13. To handle this many students and to compensate for Ontario's already high student-to-faculty ratio, which is predicted to worsen as large numbers of existing faculty retire over the next few years, COU estimates that the province will need to hire 13,500 new professors by 2010. However, Davenport claims that the universities don't have the money to recruit these faculty members, let alone provide adequate resources for their research activities or the increased numbers of graduate students that are also expected to be moving through the system.

Planning for the double cohort began 6 years ago, when the government established capacity working groups that engaged members of COU and the Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario. The resulting enrollment projections allowed the government to "develop a comprehensive plan to ensure every willing and qualified student continues to find a place in a college or university program," according to Minister Cunningham, who responded to Next Wave Canada's questions by e-mail. In last year's budget, the government committed an amount of money--a large proportion of which would go toward the recruitment of new faculty--that was based on the calculation of full funding for these additional students.

The problem is that new enrollment and 2002/2003 application statistics illustrate that the universities are facing considerably more applications than the government had first determined and budgeted for. Ian Clark, the COU president and CEO, admits that the original estimates could not account for the number of students wishing to accept the option to "fast-track" their studies during the transition period of secondary school reforms. "The government is fully aware of this problem and we have made the request for the additional funds," says Clark, adding that the universities are still waiting for a response--a decision that is likely to be delayed by the current leadership battle in Ontario. In the meantime, Clark says COU will "remain in a process of negotiation with the government and try to persuade politicians and voters that more money is required." The universities are stressing that the additional support should not be based on a dollar amount, rather that the government commit to funding positions for all of the students who choose to go to university. "That's what the parents want to hear, and that's what the students themselves want to hear," says Davenport, "they want the province to remove the uncertainty and simply say that all of the additional students will be fully funded." The response from Minister Cunningham was that the government would "continue to work with our colleges and universities to monitor enrollment data to ensure our institutions are ready."

If the government doesn't come up with the additional funding required to cover rising annual costs and maintain the current level of quality for every student, universities will be forced to put more pressure on the government to remove current restrictions on tuition and, in a worst-case scenario, restrict the numbers of new undergraduate enrollments. "Western has long taken the position that tuition fees should be set by the boards of governors of Ontario universities, and not by the government," says Davenport. "That said," he continues, "our current focus is on public funding as the only source of revenue sufficient for the double cohort challenge."

Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, the provincial Liberal opposition party's postsecondary education critic and a former faculty member at McMaster University, is sympathetic to the universities but does not agree with their approach. "I understand what the presidents are going through completely," says Bountrogianni, "but I would prefer that they got together and lobbied the government, whichever government it may be in the future, for more funding, rather than put it on the backs of students." Contrary to the protestors' demand, however, Bountrogianni confesses that simply "freezing tuition without putting more money into the system will not work." Ontario's Liberal Party is reportedly working on a plan to increase base funding to universities but has come to no firm decision on what to do about tuition levels.

The February 11 decision by the British Columbia government to fully deregulate tuition fees at universities and colleges in that province has drawn the immediate ire of students and academics. (Watch this space next week for more details on the situation in BC). But other provinces, including Ontario, that have to date been reluctant to take the controversial step, will undoubtedly scrutinize carefully the fallout from the BC government's action.

Although there appears to be no short-term answer to the tuition debate, the time is nonetheless ripe for universities, students, the public, and politicians to engage in discussions over the state of higher education in Ontario and the direction it should take, particularly with respect to accessibility. In the meantime, Sharanowski says that many students will continue to face the grim reality of mounting debts and multiple loans to pay for the escalating costs of their education.