Ontario Liberals should listen to student proposals

Talk is cheap – but it’s a start.

That’s why last week’s meetings between Ontario MPPs and post-secondary students groups are an encouraging sign.

Whether or not anything will come of the dialogue is unclear, but students across the province will find out soon enough as the release of the next provincial budget approaches.

With this in mind, it would be wise for the government to seriously consider recommendations the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario has put forth, especially since a provincial election also looms.

Considering the Liberals 30-per-cent Ontario Tuition Grant, which doesn’t apply to mature students (even though this stipulation wasn’t made clear when the idea was floated during the 2011 election), there is a real chance to right a past wrong and restore the faith of voters.

With the high cost of education, surely students would welcome any further relief.

In fact, according to Statistics Canada, this year Ontarian undergraduate students paid an average of $7,295 in tuition fees. By comparison, undergraduate tuition was lowest in Newfoundland and Labrador where students paid an average of $2,644. For the 2013-14 school year, the national average was $5,772.

Given this data, it’s easy to see how important it is for serious education policy reform in the next budget. And while the current tuition framework will carry on through 2016-17, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Among the most pertinent recommendations by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario is the suggested increased funding to crack down on unscrupulous, unpaid internships.

Not only does the federation want statistics gathered on the controversial positions, they would also like to put an end to tuition fees for work terms, co-ops, and placements. It’s fundamentally a logical policy, considering many students are basically paying to work for free.

If an institution actively pairs a student with an internship, it has a legitimate claim to charge a full fee. But in instances where students must seek out positions independently, it’s hard to see how charging a fee equivalent to that of a normal semester of courses is justified.

Many students are afraid of ruining their reputations in an industry by reporting violations while interning, so the federation is proposing Ontario hire more enforcement officers. Rather than waiting for complaints to come in – which is the current model – with more officers, the Ministry of Labour could be more proactive.

The federation’s 20-page document also addresses ancillary fees, something all students pay, yet few fully understand.

Ancillary fees are supposed to be non-program-related fees, such as those related to athletics or student government-sponsored events. Humber Students’ Federation (HSF) fees, about half of which go to health and dental insurance, are an example of the latter.

However, the federation asserts that some institutions are getting around this by giving fees nebulous names, such as “information technology fees,” some of which are technically exempted under the Ministry’s Binding Policy on Tuition and Ancillary Fees.

It may be that some students are getting charged additional fees for things their program fees should be covering – in other words, paying twice for the same service. It’s an issue that has come to the fore previously, as a 2007 class-action lawsuit launched by students against public colleges shows.

To combat such double charging, the federation has proposed directing funding into the enforcement of fee regulations.

If Ontario’s governing Liberals consider even one of the measures outlined in the federation’s proposal, or the one submitted in January by the College Student Alliance, it would certainly add weight to last week’s meetings.

For now, students will just have to wait and see whether or not it was all just lip service.