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Ont. budget earmarks $310M for 20,000 new post-secondary spaces

TORONTO - Ontario's universities and colleges will get $310 million from the budget to make good on a government promise to create 20,000 new post-secondary spaces this fall.

TORONTO - Ontario's universities and colleges will get $310 million from the budget to make good on a government promise to create 20,000 new post-secondary spaces this fall.

Still, critics say the budget leaves students in need of financial aid out in the cold. The push to get more people in Ontario into - and completing - post-secondary education was indicated in this month's speech from the throne, in which the government promised more higher education spots.

The $310 million is for operating costs, with the capital costs coming from existing sources.

Several student and education groups applauded to move to create and fund the 20,000 spaces, but the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations said the government needs to work with the schools to ensure the province's already high student-faculty ratio doesn't get worse.

"What's left unanswered in the budget is: who is going to teach these people?" said Mark Langer. "It's just not a meaningful experience to students to have access to a faculty member in a class of 1,500."

Langer also cautioned that there is a difference between simply accommodating more bodies and turning out an educated workforce.

"Are we talking about bums in seats or are we talking about the quality of the education that we're delivering to these people?" he said.

"If Ontario wants to be competitive it's not enough to award degrees that are inferior to degrees elsewhere."

Studies consistently show that students who work to put themselves through school fare worse than those who don't, so one way to ensure quality education is to boost supports and aid, Langer added.

Dan Moulton, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, said there are 220,000 students on the Ontario Student Assistance Program and that the amounts many receive are equal to living below the poverty line.

"Right now students are paying more than their fair share of the cost of their education and that's very concerning for us," he said.

Joel Duff, an organizer with the Canadian Federation of Students, said he was disappointed there was no mention of financial aid or tuition fees in the budget. Duff said he expects an announcement from the government in the next couple of days.

The throne speech also signalled the government wants to increase the number of foreign students studying in Ontario to about 54,000 from 37,000. To achieve that, the budget notes the province intends to "aggressively" promote Ontario's colleges and universities abroad, though no dollar figure was attached to the plan.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said increasing international enrolment by 50 per cent while guaranteeing spaces for qualified Ontario students is "very good public policy."

"(It) represents an enormous opportunity for students from around the world to come here and get a really good education," he said.

"Second, it represents, I think, a great opportunity for us. A lot of those people will return to their country of origin, some will stay. It will help us build better relationships."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said foreign-student recruitment is not what Ontario's post-secondary education system needs right now.

"While the government focuses on attracting students from abroad, students from Ontario are paying the highest tuition fees in the country and still receive less funding per student than in any other province," she said.

Duff said the Canadian Federation of Students believes international students contribute a lot to the education system, but there are caveats.

"The problem of course is that many institutions view international students as cash cows and they overcharge them in order to subsidize domestic students," he said.

"We'd like to see the government, I guess, pony up some money to make sure those supports are in place because currently international students are being treated as revenue-generating agents."

No specific costs were associated with plans to implement a system for transferring credits from school to school, or to establish an Ontario Online Institute - the province's first fully online university - either. A government official said the funding has been set aside in the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities budget.

Detailed plans to achieve those goals and associated costs will be announced later.

Total education-sector spending is projected to rise in 2010-11 to $21.4 billion, an increase of $700 million over the previous year. The funding increase is projected to continue to $22.3 billion in 2011-12 and $23 billion the next year.