Canadian province set to balance the books

December 10, 2004

Ontario, Canada's largest province, should consider a deferred-payment tuition fee scheme similar to Australia's to ease the chronic underfunding that has put its universities in "serious jeopardy", a government adviser has recommended.

Bob Rae, former Ontario premier, who has been examining the province's higher education system, says increased tuition coupled with a go now, pay later plan could bring universities badly needed revenues without compromising accessibility.

In a preliminary report, Mr Rae says any financial reforms to Ontario's 18 public universities and 24 public colleges must also reverse a decade of government cutbacks. Statistics Canada figures show Ontario trimmed university funding by 17 per cent per student between 1993 and 2003, from C$10,293 (Pounds 4,640) to C$8,582, while increasing tuition fees by C$2,500, or 138 per cent, over the same period.

"The system is dramatically underfinanced, and there are significant quality problems in the institutions," Mr Rae said. He said the student-aid system was not progressive enough and did not do enough for low-income families.

An income-contingent loan repayment plan, however, might prove difficult in Canada, where the provinces control education and the Federal Government collects taxes, Mr Rae said.

In May, the Ontario Government asked Mr Rae to head a panel to consider reforms to the province's colleges and universities. They include some of Canada's largest and most prestigious schools, such as Queen's University and the University of Toronto. His recommendations are due in January.

Paul Davenport, president of the University of Western Ontario, said Mr Rae's preliminary report recognises the flaws in the funding formula.

But Michael Doucet, president of the Ontario Conference of University Faculty Associations, warned: "If you raise tuition the way Britain is doing, it will deter low-income students from going to university."

The Canadian Federation of Students said the review was biased toward deregulating tuition fees and increasing student debt.

Nationwide, undergraduates had to pay more in fees this year than ever.

Average tuition fees have risen 3.9 per cent to C$4,172, up from C$4,018 in 2003-04 and nearly triple the C$1,464 of 1990-91, according to Statistics Canada.

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