Ontario’s post-secondary minister has left the door open to making cuts to the province’s free tuition program, a day after the surprise cancellation of three major university-college expansions.
Merrilee Fullerton told reporters the government cancelled new campus plans in Milton, Markham and Brampton because the province was left in “dire straits” by the previous Liberal government.
“We’ve had to make tough decisions,” she said.
When asked twice about free tuition, the minister of training, colleges and universities, reiterated the government’s concerns about the province’s finances, adding “we need to get Ontario back on track.”
The financial aid system — a signature program introduced by the Liberals last year to help lower-income families afford post-secondary fees, provided nonrepayable grants to more than 210,000 students last year, roughly one-third of all of those studying full-time.
At Queen’s Park, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the campus announcement — which came late Monday — a “bombshell” for the communities that had been planning for years.
While the Liberals “may have shattered people’s trust,” she said, “… this government is shattering their dreams.”
Fullerton, however, said the PC government was elected to “restore accountability and trust in Ontario’s finances” and inherited a $15-billion deficit.
“Our government is being forced to clean up the irresponsible and reckless financial decisions of the previous Liberal government.”
The cancellations put local PC MPPs in the awkward position of having to defend cuts to the very campus projects they once promised, praised and promoted — including Billy Pang (Markham-Unionville) and Parm Gill (Milton).
New Democrat MPP Chris Glover (Spadina–Fort York), a former Toronto school board trustee and York University professor, said the three cities “are the only communities with over a million people in North America that do not have a university.”
And NDP MPP Sara Singh, who represents Brampton Centre, said “years of tireless effort have gone into making this campus a reality. But in the blink of an eye, the work and planning has all been thrown out the window.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said Premier Doug Ford should have been upfront about his plans to cancel the university expansions during last spring’s election campaign — unless he was trying to hoodwink voters.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said a lot of money and time has already gone into the projects, and that there will be costs associated with winding them down.
The universities and colleges affected have said they will try to secure alternate funding to keep the projects going.
Meanwhile, it appears the provincial government is going ahead with a new campus for Collège Boréal in Toronto’s Distillery District. Next Monday, Attorney General and Francophone Affairs Minister Caroline Mulroney will be in attendance for the groundbreaking.
With files from Rob Ferguson
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy