Students overlooked again in Ontario budget as election looms

By Morgan Sharp, Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There was scant relief for young people in a pre-election Ontario budget thick with promised spending on highways and mining projects

The last provincial budget before Premier Doug Ford’s government faces Ontario voters this summer proposes to make degree qualifications available from colleges and eliminate a rebate for international students whose fees help prop up post-secondary institutions’ budgets.

The Progressive Conservatives also extended a tuition freeze for another academic year, the third time it has done so since COVID-19, but cut $685 million from its post-secondary expenses (and $1.3 billion from K-12 education) since its third-quarter 2021-22 financials.

“How is it possible that the Ford Conservatives deliberately choose to cut $1.3 billion from public education?” asked Steven Del Duca, the Liberal leader, in response to the budget. “How is it possible that in the second year of COVID, the second school year, they decided to cut $2 billion from COVID supports from our same publicly funded system?”

The former was a cut to base spending on education compared to the 2021 budget and the latter was a reduction from the hard spike of $2.9 billion in COVID-related exceptional costs in 2020-21 to a little over $750 million in 2021-22.

The Ford government is eager to get more students interested in careers in the trades and prepared for the jobs of the future, it says. Its planned college degree programs could cover skilled trades business management, electrochemical engineering and welding and metallurgy.

There were no planned changes to the funding formula for universities, a government official said, after a 10 per cent tuition cut in 2019-20, which saves students around $450 million a year but has not been replaced by additional public investment in the schools they attend.

The budget instead committed most of its heavy spending promises to infrastructure, including for two highways, one in the Greater Toronto Area and another just north of it, plus an access road to a remote part of the province where the government wants to mine natural resources it says will be in demand in the shift to electric vehicles and other green projects.

The whole exercise may be moot, however, with Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy declining to commit to the document should the government get re-elected.

“Well, you know, we are going to campaign on this document,” he said in response to one of several questions from reporters. “We’ll listen to the people.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was concerned the government planned to offer one thing and deliver another.

“There’s gotta be a hidden budget somewhere,” Horwath said after the finance minister’s comments. “What are they hiding? What is it that they are selling to Ontarians?”

The government said it plans to make investments totalling $158.8 billion over the next 10 years, including $20 billion in 2022-23. Its proposed budget sets aside more than $25 billion over a decade for highway expansion and rehabilitation and $61.6 billion for public transit.

The document allocates $142 million over three years to help deliver clinical education for nursing-related programs and to expand the number of medical school graduates, and $61 million over three years to encourage students in programs such as health human resources to keep working in underserved communities after graduation.

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