On Monday Jan. 14, five students at Queen’s University occupied Principal William Leggett’s office in a demonstration against a proposed deregulation of undergraduate tuition fees.The proposal, tabled by university administrators and sent to the Ontario government, is calling for the end to government control over undergraduate tuition fees at the institution, which are currently set by Queen’s Park.
According to Joel Duff, Ontario chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), this would spell disaster for the average university student in Ontario.
“If Queen’s gets their way, there would be no government control and it would send tuition fees skyrocketing.”
The report was sent to the government despite resounding opposition to it. Katherine Charlton, vice-president external of Queen’s Society of Graduate and Professional Students, has confirmed as much.
Legget says that the issue is not one of deregulation, but of maintaining quality education in the face of decreasing government funding.
“The reduction in government funding . from three consecutive governments . has led to a position where the quality of education we are able to offer is far below that which we feel we owe to our students. I have spent far more time lobbying for equal and equlitable funding than I have lobbying for locally based tuition.”
Leggett also says that his proposal has been misrepresented in the media.
“What has not been discussed in most of the coverage of this issue is the impressive needs-based assistance program which is part of the proposal, which would ensure that no student who is academically eligible for Queen’s would be denied an opportunity to attend because of financial reasons. It would also put an upper limit on the deficit of any students leaving the university.”
“We know students oppose the policy of deregulation,” says Charlton. “In a referendum last year, Queen’s arts and science students voted by over 90 per cent to oppose deregulating undergraduate tuition fees.”
A policy of deregulation, however, would not necessarily be isolated to Queen’s University if it were put into practice.
“Effectively, there is going to be a domino effect. Queen’s is going to put pressure on other institutions,” says Duff. “I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that this could firmly entrench a two-tier system in Ontario.”
The level of tension in the office went up a degree on Wednesday, Jan. 16, when Leggett cut off power to office computers that were being used by the students.
“It [the power] was shut off because they had made an agreement to respect the files in the office. There are two types of files, paper files and computer files. To use computers, you have to turn them on and start them up and such, and we were concerned that we have a responsibility to protect those files.
“We gave them a choice, that they could either hand the computers over to us, or we could shut off power to those computers. That’s what they chose. We didn’t shut off lights, we didn’t shut off heat, we just shut off power to those computers,” says Leggett.
The administration at Queen’s has argued that an increase in tuition fees would directly affect educational quality by raising it, although Ontario already has the second highest tuition fees in Canada.
“If tuition fees are directly related to quality, then by that logic we should
Pam Frache, government relations coordinator for the CFS, has said that there is a problem at the government level.
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“There isn’t consensus within cabinet,” says Frache.
This would appear to be the reason why the Ontario government publicly states that they are committed to low-cost public education, but are in fact meeting privately to address the Queen’s University proposal.
“We know there was a meeting as early as last week between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to address this proposal,” says Frache. “If there has ever been an emergency for students, this is it.”
According to Stats Canada, there has been a 20 per cent across the board cut in government funding since 1994, which totals a staggering $400 million a year.
According to Frache, the students were prepared to occupy Leggett’s office beyond Jan. 18, which was their original target date for leaving the office. She feels that it is time for students throughout the province to mobilize in order to demonstrate to the Queen’s Park that students are fed up.
Duff agrees: “Enough backroom dealing. Students and the voters of Ontario have a right to know where the government stands on this issue. Are they for or against public education?” have the second highest educational quality in Canada . but we have the worst student-professor ratio in Canada,” says Duff.
According to the CFS, government underfunding is creating the problem. Duff says, “We are the second lowest jurisdiction in North America in terms of government funding, next to Texas.”