Simcoe North’s only university hosted a candidates debate today to “discuss issues facing universities in Ontario.”
Jill Dunlop, the incumbent Progressive Conservative MPP for the riding, who is also the minister of colleges and universities, did not attend the event hosted by the Lakehead University Student Union (LUSU) and Lakehead University Faculty Association (LUFA).
For Dunlop, it marked the third political debate she has skipped this week.
LUSU vice-president Brandon Rhéal Amyot was asked about Dunlop’s absence.
“(We) look forward to working with a minister of colleges and universities in the future who is interested in collegial relations with all members of the post-secondary sector,” they said.
“We appreciate the invited candidates who did make time to speak about their platforms regarding post-secondary education.”
Dunlop did not return a call for comment on her absence.
Simcoe North candidates from the Ontario Greens, Liberals and NDP participated in Friday’s event.
Afterward, NDP candidate Elizabeth Van Houtte tweeted, “as the Colleges and Universities minister, this is especially insulting, and as an MPP it’s a disservice to constituents.”
During the debate, candidates fielded questions about increasing funding to universities and colleges, reducing tuition fees and expanding student loans and grant opportunities, improving working conditions for contract and sessional lecturers, and supporting the mental health of students, among other topics.
All three candidates said they would look to repeal performance-based funding models for colleges and universities introduced under the current government, opting instead for an equitable manner of funding, with the aim of cooling down rising tuition costs.
“The performance-based funding model takes away the autonomy not only of the universities and the teachers, but also the students,” said Van Houtte. “Students need to learn where they’re at, and performance-based funding does not do that. It streamlines people, it confines people, and I don’t agree with that.”
“The performance model is is brutal, and we’re going to scrap it and get rid of it. We like to think of our post-secondary institutions as publicly funded, but in reality they’re publicly assisted,” said Liberal candidate Aaron Cayden Hiltz.
“Moving forward, we need to reverse the devastating cuts to OSAP, scrap the performance-based model so that students and universities can grow, and we want to eliminate interest on student loans.”
Green candidate Krystal Brooks said her party would fund universities based on a “weighted national average,” with “inflationary” funding increases each year.
“It goes back to just changing a lot of the things that the Ford government has made cuts to and just revamping our education system, and also replacing the faculty performance-based university funding model,” she said. “I think that that’s a really important one, and restoring a more stable and equitable enrolment-based funding model.”
Like Cayden Hiltz, both Van Houtte and Brooks said their parties would eliminate interest on student loans.
“The (current situation) did not happen overnight. We didn’t wake up and find out we’re in trouble. The (Liberals and Progressive Conservatives) have continued to carve away at post-secondary education,” said Van Houtte. “We will reverse cuts that Ford put on OSAP and ensure that students graduate debt free by converting loans to grants. We’ll wipe out all student loan interest.”
Brooks said the Greens would reverse “the Ford government’s cuts to OSAP by converting loans to grants and eliminating interest charges on student debt.”
Cayden Hiltz took exception to Van Houtte’s accusations against the Liberal party, arguing the only reason he was able to go school was because the previous Liberal government expanded grants for low-income students.
“The NDP seems to think that Kathleen Wynne is still premier and hasn’t retired. I’d just like to expand on the proven track record that the Liberals … (expanded) OSAP. I’m a recipient of that,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if the Ontario Liberals didn’t expand OSAP, so we have a proven track record in dealing with education.”
When asked about how he would improve conditions for contract lecturers, Cayden Hiltz spoke to the difficult circumstances many have to endure to get by.
“A few of my professors are contract lecturers, and I’ve had the opportunity to be able to speak frankly with them about their situation,” he said. “Many of them work at different schools; they travel to Toronto for a few days of the week and then they travel to Orillia for a few other days of the week, and that job insecurity is stressful for them.”
Van Houtte, who has worked as a contract lecturer in the past, agreed working conditions are bad.
“At one time, I was teaching at two universities and two colleges at the same time and couldn’t make a living wage,” she said. “I was making below minimum wage.”
Both Cayden Hiltz and Van Houtte said their parties would repeal Bill 124, which limits wage increases for many public-sector employees.
“We will repeal Bill 124. It is not in the best interest of anyone, and it is a direct attack on people who are providing and teaching services, and if you look at the health-care community, the education community, it was an attack on health and education and their workers.”
“Throwing Bill 124 in the garbage, where it belongs, is one of our first priorities,” said Cayden Hiltz. “Initially, I was speaking to nurses and health-care professionals about Bill 124 in regards to how COVID-19 was affecting our hospitals, but since then it’s become so much more than that.”
Brooks said her party would similarly look to remove wage constraints.
“By ensuring consistent and fair labour standards and working conditions for all faculty, including contract faculty, I really think that that would help address this, as well as removing wage constraints and paying employees equal wages for equal work,” she said.
Brooks added a universal basic income would help the situation as well.
“I really think that pretty much all issues can be tied back to universal basic income,” she said. “I think that this is no exception, and universal basic income would really help with this as well.”
When asked about how her party would help students who need mental health support, Brooks said Ontario needs expanded access to supports, particularly ones that cater to the needs of diverse students.
“I have struggled with mental health as well and I know how hard it is to access those services. I also know how hard it is to reach out for those services,” she said. “It’s not easy, and especially when those services are not out in the open, and you don’t see them, you don’t know where to look.”
“I think that incorporating more mental health supports, and more cultural supports, more supports that cater to the individual needs of diverse students is really important in this, as well as making it open to all students, but also having that available for faculty,” she said.
Cayden Hiltz highlighted the current state of affairs, and suggested a certain amount of funds provided to universities and colleges should be earmarked for mental health support.
“The wait list for those services can be up to three, four months. That’s half of half of your school year,” he said. “When students are in crisis, they don’t have three to four months — they need access to those mental services right away.”
“Part of my proposal today is to make sure that we earmark provincial funding for education to go towards these support services, so that takes the form of hiring new staff that are trained and are able to deal with streamlining the process and reducing those wild backlogs.”
Van Houtte, a social worker, pointed to the NDP’s campaign promise of universal mental health care, which would also apply to students.
“The pandemic has highlighted the gaping holes in our health-care system and what we’ve seen absent is a very solid mental health program across this province,” she said. “The NDP has announced their platform to begin, immediately upon our election, a mental health program that every Ontario person can use and utilize with their OHIP card up to $200 per visit. In terms of the universities, that means university students would have access to that (as well).”
The New Blue party and Ontario Party candidates were not invited to the event.
“For the purposes of time, we chose to invite the four parties which were elected to the legislature in the last Ontario election,” Amyot told OrilliaMatters. “If we have any other events between now and the election, we will make an opportunity for all parties to be present for a discussion on their post-secondary education platforms.”
The debate will be made available on the LUSU YouTube page and LUFA website.