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Is Free College And University Tuition The Poverty Reduction Strategy That Ontario Has Been Searching For?

A pregnant Mojdeh Cox and family as they await the arrival of twins. Photo credit: Samantha Boyce.

Is Free College And University Tuition The Poverty Reduction Strategy That Ontario Has Been Searching For?

Mark Brown 99By Mark Brown
PRIDE Guest Columnist


“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” Malcolm X.


For far too many the stamp in their education passport says access denied. Denied because for many families throughout Ontario, the cost of higher education is not in the household budget.

It has been said that trying to raise a family when your wage is at or just above the $11.25 minimum wage can be compared to trying to soak up the Lake Ontario with a sponge.

After food, housing, clothing and or prescription drugs there simply is no money left over to send your kids to college or university. This depiction is often disproportionately the saga of the black and aboriginal families in Ontario.

Having that said it comes as no surprise that  many Ontario families, labour and student groups welcome the recent announcement in the Ontario Provincial Budget to make tuition free to families earning less than $50,000 per year.

The changes to the program roll multiple loans and grant programs into one, called the new Ontario Student Grant.

“I think tuition should be free for all” says Mojdeh Cox, married mother of four children. Three of those children are close enough in age that they may all be in post-secondary school at the same time.

From 2003 to 2008, Mojdeh Cox was a full time student who was also working full time in order to put herself through school and raise her first child. Even with full time employment her income would fall below the low income cut off.

When asked how she planned to put her son through post-secondary school when he was older, Mojdeh confessed that she would sometimes sacrifice meals to put away for her child’s education.

She went on to say that the people that would benefit most from these changes are those making a modest income or living paycheck to paycheck that don’t have the extra money for a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP).

Mojdeh stated that” I am most proud of the fact that this helps people in cyclical poverty get out”.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica cyclical poverty refers to poverty that may be widespread throughout a population, but the occurrence itself is of limited duration.

She further stated that “Not being able to make ends meet impacted my physical and mental health and my ability to perform in school”.

It is expected that higher-income families will continue to get some assistance with tuition. It can be argued that a family with a house hold income that is below the $50,000 threshold and has only one child is in need of the same assistance as a family with a house hold income that is mildly above the threshold and has two or more children.

Recently the Ontario Common Front which is An Ontario-wide coalition of more than 90 labour and community groups released its report entitled Labour Force Restructuring, Austerity and Widening Inequality in Ontario.

The report details the growing inequity in the Province. Some of the highlights include;

  • 1.7 million individuals are now earning within $4 of the minimum wage;
  • University tuition fees in Ontario have outpaced inflation by 601 percent and are by far the highest in the country, while on per student funding for higher education Ontario ranks dead last

Has our government finally recognized the essential role that post-secondary education (PSE) plays in economic growth, innovation, and in increasing social and economic equality?

It has been said that access to education should be dictated by ability and desire, not financial means.

However post-secondary education remained out of reach for far too many Canadians. According to the report tuition fees have increased, on average, over five times the rate of inflation, limiting access to PSE on a financial basis.

At their current rate of increase, tuition fees are estimated to exceed all other student expenses combined in five years. According to Statistics Canada, students from low-income families are 50% less likely than those from high-income households to pursue a university education.

Furthermore according to Statistics Canada research, the most frequently reported reason for high school students not to pursue PSE was cost.

For those who do go to PSE, Canadian youth are now the most indebted generation in the country’s history with over $15 billion, not including provincial or private debt.

This personal liability has long-range effects on Canada’s economy and socio-economic equality.

While the jury is still out on whither free tuition will actually mean free tuition or if every household that should benefit from this change will be reached. Many tend to agree that there appears to be an improvement from the existing system that left numerous students with a debt equivalent to the down payment on a first home.

Only the passage of time will tell whether free tuition was a successful strategy in reducing both poverty and student debt in Ontario.

However, one thing that I am confident of is that, if Premier Kathleen Wynne is successful in bringing free tuition to millions of Ontario families who otherwise could not afford the cost of post-secondary education, and in delivering an Ontario pension plan to millions of workers who previously relied solely on the Canada Pension Plan in order to retire below the poverty line, then history may very well record this Premier’s name beside Tommy Douglas, who brought healthcare to Canadians, and President Barack Obama, who brought health care to millions of Americans who were previously uninsured.

Each of them was successful in moving closer towards the end goal of a more inclusive society, by making their vision both available and accessible to all who are willing to work for it. 

Mark Brown is a Labour Activist with the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, The Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU) and the Toronto Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

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