On Campus

Ontario budget makes colleges smile

But universities and student groups disappointed

A $1.5 billion investment in skills training to strengthen Ontario’s ailing economy that was dubbed the “centrepiece” of Tuesday’s provincial budget came as a boon to colleges, but was met with widespread derision by university and student groups.The three-year investment, part of the Skills to Jobs Action Plan, will help train unemployed workers for new careers, expand apprenticeships, build more spaces in colleges and universities, and help students with their education costs, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said in his budget speech.

“Some 20,000 unemployed workers will get long-term training that launches them into new, well-paying careers through our $355-million Second Career Strategy,” Duncan said. “Our government will also expand apprenticeship programs, targeting 32,500 new registrants – a 25 per cent increase in three years.”

The government will also invest $970 million over three years in capital projects, including a $60 million contribution to the College Equipment and Renewal Fund and $200 million from 2007-2008 so university campuses can maintain and upgrade their facilities.

Durham College president Leah Myers called it a “very good-news budget,” but said the need for training and retraining programs is “critical.” Located in Oshawa, an automotive town that’s experienced first-hand many of the manufacturing job losses that are plaguing Ontario, the college is finding many people want to embark on a second career, she said. “One aspect that’s really important about the design of this program is that it’s meant to help individuals enter one-or two-year training programs, so it’s going to lead to meaningful careers,” she said. “It’s not short-term quick-in, quick-out.”

Myers said she’s looking forward to discussions with the province on how to access the equipment and renewal fund because the college is planning an expansion of its Skills Training Centre. “Because our training is so industry-relevant … it’s really important for us to have up-to-date facilities, up-to-date equipment, and these capital funds are monies we’ve been talking to the government for a while about,” she said.

While noting that skills training is a good way to use the federal money that’s been allotted for labour market development, NDP Leader Howard Hampton nonetheless slammed the Liberal government for falling short in their commitment to help those who have lost their jobs as a result of the manufacturing slump. “Training for 20,000 when over 200,000 have lost their jobs is pretty thin gruel,” he said. “What happens to the other 180,000? Do they catch the next flight to Fort McMurray or Saskatoon? This seems to be the way it goes with the McGuinty government.”

As part of the budget, about 550,000 full-time college and university students are also expected to benefit from $385 million in textbook and technology grants over the next three years, resulting in a savings of about $300 per student once fully implemented. Students in rural or remote areas will receive some $27 million over three years in distance grants, while the government will spend another $7 million to give post-secondary students international work experience.

But Joel Duff of the Canadian Federation of Students called the textbook grant a “tokenistic gesture” and said the budget fell far short of students’ expectations. “There really are no measures to reduce debt or reduce tuition fees,” he said. “If they want to fashion themselves as a government that’s really challenging poverty, then they need to recognize that affordable post-secondary education is a real key piece of that puzzle.”

Brian Brown, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, said the budget also failed to take into account the needs of universities. With undergraduate enrolment alone expected to hit 92,000 by 2009-10 — double 2003 levels — universities don’t have the staff to keep up. Universities predict they’ll need to hire some 5,500 new faculty members to meet the demand, Brown said.

-with a report from CP 

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