“The Education Premier”

Another one of my articles published by the Canadian University Press following Dalton McGuinty’s announcement that he was resigning.

“The Education Premier” leaves behind a legacy of higher enrolment and higher tuition

Katherine DeClerq — CUP Ontario Bureau Chief

(Photo by Nick Lachance/The Cord)

OTTAWA (CUP) — On Oct. 15, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced some shocking news — he was resigning.

For many, it seemed unbelievable. McGuinty had been premier for the last six years and had just won the election in 2011. After a three-year reign — a record that hasn’t been seen by the Ontario Liberal Party in over 125 years — few expected this.

Regardless of why he resigned, no one can deny he had a good run. The self-styled “Education Premier”, McGuinty has gained a reputation as being a friend to students and a supporter of accessible education. He invested money into financial aid while creating more space for students on campus.

At the same time, critics of the McGuinty government say that these policies have stagnated the quality of education at universities and colleges. Tuition has risen substantially since 2006, and his latest project — the 30 per cent Off Tuition Grant — is only accessible to certain students, leaving others out of luck.

Born and raised in Ottawa, McGuinty had his fill of post-secondary education during his climb into politics. He attended both McMaster University and the University of Ottawa where he studied law, and, after graduating, he guest-lectured at Carleton University in business law.

When he became Premier in 2003, he promised to make education a centerpiece of his agenda, and many believe that he followed through on that promise.

“I think his legacy really supports education as a centerpiece of a path to prosperity in Ontario,” said Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities. “In the post-secondary education sector particularly he has made significant investments within his government improving access to post-secondary education, and affordability for students.”

In terms of investments, McGuinty enacted a two-year tuition freeze at the beginning of his service as Premier. While he couldn’t maintain the freeze, he did work hard to ensure the Liberal government made university more accessible.

He promised to invest $6.2 billion into Ontario post-secondary education in 2006, including $358 million in financial assistance. McGuinty also proposed a goal of a 70 per cent attainment rate for universities and colleges — a goal that he came close to achieving with 62 per cent as of 2010.

In addition to providing increased financial assistance, the Liberal government also focused on increasing enrollment.

“We have, since [McGuinty] came to power, created over 100,000 new spaces for students in universities,” said Patterson. “ That is the single largest investment in the university sector generally in decades. He not only created those spaces at the undergraduate level, but we also had the first funded spaces … over 15,000 spaces in graduate programs in the province. That is an enormous contribution to the future.”

It wasn’t only universities that benefited. Ontario colleges also secured financial benefits, including increased funding for military colleges and post-secondary education programs in northern communities.

“There was a huge focus on transferability of credits within colleges, something that wasn’t even on the radar prior to Liberal leadership,” said Tyler Epp, director of advocacy for the College Student Alliance.

But not everyone believes he is leaving behind a strong legacy in post-secondary education.

Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario branch, is looking forward to working with new Liberal leadership and hopes that they are on board with making education more affordable.

“I think for someone who has been called the Education Premier, the Liberals have a pretty poor record on education,” she said.

“Since 2006, tuition has risen 71 per cent, and with the Liberal Party’s most recent project, the 30 per cent Off Ontario Tuition Grant, we saw them not fulfill an important promise to reduce tuition fees.”

Rob Leone, Conservative MPP for Cambridge and critic for the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, gives credit to the Liberal government for increasing the number of spaces in Ontario universities and colleges and for greater financial investments into government aid for students. However he also believes that the result of these policies is a decrease in quality of post-secondary education.

“As much as I respect his 22 years in public service, its not all perfect. One of the things we have seen in the last number of years is the decline in quality of education,” Leonne said.

“The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance survey,Education Reform: Striving for Higher Quality of Education at Ontario Universities, asked professors about what they think quality is in schools, [and] 42 per cent of professors strongly believed that quality has declined for schools. Quality in our schools has declined even though students are paying more, and that, I think, is a lingering blight on his legacy on post-secondary education.”

Another black spot on McGuinty’s legacy may be his decision to prorogue the Ontario Legislature and the influence this may have on the discussion paper * Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation, and Knowledge*.

Patterson is adamant that the proroguing of legislature won’t have any effect on the document because it is still in its ministerial process and more consultation is required before it is officially presented. At the same time, Leone believes that it may influence the speed at which the paper goes forward, making it difficult to continue on the same fall timeline.

The Ontario Liberals will hold a leadership convention on January 26, 2013 to determine McGuinty’s successor.

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