Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s signature “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually — a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.
Although the program, which will cost taxpayers about $650 million more a year than the old grant-and-loan system, was designed to help students from low-income families, there is little evidence that that is happening.
“We concluded that a large portion of the new OSAP recipients were already attending college or university — and paying for it by themselves or with loans — even before they qualified for the new aid,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said Wednesday.
In her two-volume, 1,128-page annual report to the legislature, Lysyk examined a slew of programs, finding cost overruns and political meddling at transportation agency Metrolinx, problems for patients without private insurance paying for health services when travelling even within Canada, and ineffective development of Toronto’s waterfront.
The watchdog also found “most” elevators in Ontario do not meet safety standards and there are few penalties for scofflaw operators.
Her conclusions from 15 “value-for-money” audits are aimed more at the transgressions of Wynne’s government than those of Premier Doug Ford’s administration, which was only sworn in on June 29.
“A central finding in almost all of our audits this year was that spending of public monies did not consistently result in the cost-effective achievement of anticipated program benefits or the the proactive addressing of program risks,” Lysyk said.
Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said Lysyk “shed new light on the disappointing waste and fiscal mismanagement that existed under the previous government.”
He promised the Ford government will establish “a new culture of fiscal rigour and transparency in the province’s finances.”
Ontario’s revamped student aid system, which provides low-income students with non-repayable grants to cover tuition and often more, was intended to increase access to college and university for under-represented groups. It reformed the old system which provided a combination of grants and loans.
The colleges and universities ministry had estimated that axing post-secondary tax credits “was expected to more than offset any increased costs” of the changes, but the auditor found that the “uptake to financial aid to date … has exceeded expectations” and will, in fact, cost many millions more each year.
Worse, because the ministry only “tracks limited data about (student aid) recipients …, (it) cannot determine whether the latest changes actually helped improve access to post-secondary education,” says the report, noting overall enrolment has remained roughly the same.
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Lysyk also found that one-third of mature students — those who have been out of high school for four years or more — qualified for grants, but the ministry “did not know whether the students actually needed OSAP support.”
Unlike students who attend university straight out of high school, the income of the parents of mature students isn’t taken into consideration, even if they still live at home and their family earns more than $200,000 a year.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said the tuition reform introduced under his government was new and its important to keep in mind that it means “230,000 students will graduate without debt.”
“We had a very high subscription for people coming in and wanting to get a degree, which is critical for their success going forward,” Fraser told reporters Wednesday. “So when you have a program like that, and it is oversubscribed, you do your best estimates but the intention of that is to give students a shot at higher education” which benefits the economy as well.
But Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton said the auditor shows that “the previous Liberal government took reckless actions that threaten the long-term sustainability” of the student aid program.
“Our goal is to ensure students who want to attend college or university receive a high-quality education and the skills needed to find a job in the workforce of tomorrow,” she said in a statement to the Star.
“Our government will examine how to restore the financial sustainability of OSAP, so the program is efficient, cost-effective, and helps the students who need it the most.”
On Waterfront Toronto, Lysyk blasted the joint federal-provincial-municipal agency for failing to deliver on its mandate to transform the city’s 2,840-acre lakefront.
The auditor also questioned the wisdom of the agency’s agreement with Google-run Sidewalk Labs to develop a wired “smart city” on waterfront lands, including privacy concerns over the use of residents’ data.
As well, she expressed concern about the earmarking of $453 million toward Port Lands flood-protection at the mouth of the Don River.
On Metrolinx, Lysyk maintained that the agency’s 2016 decision to locate GO Transit stations at Kirby and Lawrence East was influenced by the then-Liberal government and by city hall.
As for elevator safety, Bonnie Rose, president and CEO of the TSSA safety authority, said her agency takes “our accountability for administering Ontario’s public safety mandate extremely seriously” and has already established a plan to address the auditor’s concerns around elevators and other matters to “strengthen our ability to keep Ontarians safe.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie