The Ontario government is providing $48 million for colleges and universities this year to compensate for a two-year freeze of post-secondary tuition fees.
The $48.1 million in funding, which is for both colleges and universities, is to cushion the first-year blow of a fee freeze that universities alone say will take roughly $50 million a year off their bottom line.
Word of the cash injection came late last Wednesday after Colleges and Universities Minister Mary Anne Chambers confirmed the freeze, promised during the fall election campaign, was imminent.
Chambers said the province has been taking its time putting the finishing touches on the plan to ensure institutions were properly compensated.
"We wanted to make sure we did it right; we wanted to make sure we got the compensation part of it right," she said on her way into a cabinet meeting.
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Despite fiscal challenges, including harnessing an estimated $5.6-billion deficit, the Liberals are forging ahead with the $48.1-million funding plan and freezing fees for both regulated and unregulated post-secondary programs.
Over the next few months, the government will consult with students, parents, industry partners, universities and colleges to develop a long-term funding framework for the system, with improved financial assistance for students.
Since the deregulation of tuition in 1998, medical school tuition costs have nearly tripled. Undergraduate medical students could spend up to $150,000 in tuition, academic and living expenses and the average medical student will be graduating with at least $120,000 worth of debt.
Historically, Ontario universities have received the lowest per-student funding in Canada and suffer from the highest student-faculty ratios in the country.
"You can't say I'm going to help the students and then not compensate the institutions, because ... you end up hurting the quality of the programming."
The freeze applies to both regulated and deregulated programs at institutions that collect funding from the province, said Chambers.
Statistics Canada says average tuition fees for undergraduate students have more than doubled over the past decade, to $4,025 in the 2003-2004 academic year.
"This is good news," said Jeff La Porte, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
"It'll give students in university some peace of mind, because now universities can start planning for the future . . . because they'll know how much money is coming down the pipeline."
A typical student graduating with a four-year undergraduate degree leaves university with $22,700 in student debt, La Porte said.
Without the $25 million that would have been earmarked for student aid in the event of a fee increase, the Council of Ontario Universities says the freeze would take $50 million a year out of the hands of its members.
Colleges -- already reeling from nearly 10 years of funding shortfalls at the hands of the former Conservative government -- would lose $8 million.
McGuinty, meanwhile, made it clear last Wednesday that no one who collects transfer revenues from the province will be getting a blank cheque with no strings attached.
The Liberal government's growing fixation with getting value for taxpayer dollars -- a consequence of a $5.6-billion deficit inherited from the previous Conservative government -- means colleges, universities and schools will be expected to show value for money.
The government won't go so far as to impose performance agreements on institutions the way it's trying to do with hospitals, McGuinty said. Rather, he said he wants to "enlist" transfer partners to help the province get more for its money.
"What we want to do as part of our long-term strategic plan is bring about real improvement in the quality of services, and when I say improvement I mean measurable improvement," McGuinty said after a speech Wednesday to a gathering of business leaders.
Some 80 per cent of the money that comes in to government coffers goes right back out the door in the form of transfer payments to schools, hospitals, municipalities and post-secondary institutions, he said.
"There will be more conditions attached to funding than in the past with respect to transfers to our partners," he said.
"Taxpayers are entitled to know that we're getting good value for that, and value means measurable improvement."
The council says Ontario's operating grants per student to its universities are the lowest in Canada, and have declined by 25 per cent per student over the last 10 years.
The biggest increases in tuition fees this fall occurred for students in dentistry, law and medicine, and they continue to be the most expensive programs, the agency notes.
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