The Ontario government will invest $42 million over three years in ‘Ontario Online,’ an e-learning platform and consortium set to launch in the 2015-16 academic year.

Brad Duguid, the province’s minister of training, colleges and universities, announced the initiative on Jan. 13. The centre would offer centralized online courses for credit, transferable between participating institutions across the province, although universities and colleges are not mandated to sign on.

“Right now we have what I would call a hodge-podge of online learning technology,” Duguid said. “Some institutions are global leaders. Others are holding back. I think we want to get to a point where every student in the province has access to this learning technology.”

Ontario Online will consist of a course registry, an instruction hub for institutions to share best practices for course development and a support hub to offer assistance to students and instructors.

"The MSU definitely supports McMaster joining Ontario Online for a number of reasons," said Spencer Graham, vice-president (education) of the MSU. "We think it will provide students with a lot of increased options and flexibility in terms of how they want to learn."

The centre is the result of various consultations between the ministry and stakeholders over the past several years. The centre will not be a degree-granting institution, which student and faculty groups opposed in roundtable discussions. 

“I think this has definitely been refined from the initial proposal,” said Alastair Woods, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario. However, the organization remains skeptical of the ministry’s direction on e-learning and mandate to offer students more of a choice between in-class learning and online learning.

“I think it’s important to ask who is being presented with that choice,” Woods said. “In many cases, if you live in an urban area like downtown Toronto, you do have a choice. But if you live in rural or northern Ontario or you’re a francophone or aboriginal student, I actually think this reduces your choices because you still may not be able to leave your community to go to school.”

“I think what’s more important for students in those communities would be to have more financial support for them to go to a brick-and-mortar school should they choose to do so,” he said. 

According to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which supported the ministry’s announcement, postsecondary institutions in Ontario saw nearly 500,000 online course registrations in 2011.

Ontario Online was developed in tandem with the province’s ‘differentiation’ policy framework, which was redefined in November 2013. The current framework emphasizes minimizing duplication in course offerings across the province and building a globally competitive system.

Duguid said the new online learning centre “isn’t driven by cost savings” though it would result in savings for some institutions and potential revenue for others.

“Some students will learn better in an online course, and some students may have other obligations outside of school life that make it necessary to go online,” Duguid said.

Woods supported the idea of knowledge-sharing online but said more needs to be done to improve access to postsecondary education.

“What worries me is that there are a lot of changes coming down the sector that the government claims will produce cost savings but are not motivated by cost savings. I don’t think that’s an entirely genuine statement. I think in the absence of any new funding models, the government is trying to come up with ways to do more with less,” he said.

The University of Waterloo, which currently offers more than 240 online courses through its Centre for Extended Learning, allows undergraduate students in five programs to get their degrees entirely online. The university is expected to play a strong role in the new e-learning centre.

Catherine Newell Kelly, director of the UWaterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning, said high-quality online courses would require heavy support for faculty on the development side.

“We bring a whole project team to online course development and work with the instructor to help him or her understand how to teach in the online environment,” she said.

“I do not think that online learning will replace classroom learning. I think technology allows us to think about how students best learn and which pieces of a course might be delivered by technology.” 

Details of how courses would be administered through Ontario Online and whether college and university courses would be cross-listed haven’t yet been released. More announcements from the ministry are expected in the coming months.

Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities has introduced a new set of tuition billing regulations that will begin taking effect in the 201415 academic year. The changes are expected to be fully implemented by 2016.

The new policy, announced in December 2013, states that all post-secondary students in Ontario will be able to pay tuition per term without having to pay deferral fees. Tuition payments for a fall term cannot be due before August, and students who apply for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) by the beginning of August will not have to pay tuition before receiving their financial aid.

In response to the policy, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) and the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-Ontario) commended the ministry but also flagged some concerns.

“One thing we need to note is that we’ve heard from many university presidents that with these fees gone, there’s going to be less money in the system,” said Amir Eftekarpour, president of OUSA and vp external of the University Students’ Council at Western University.

“We definitely don’t want students to experience a lower quality of education because of this. There needs to be some discussion around ensuring that there is a funded reduction of these fees,” he said.

Another issue of contention, flat-fee tuition billing, will be more regulated but not altogether eliminated.

The ministry has committed to raising the current 60 per cent threshold to 70 per cent in 2015, then to 80 per cent by 2016. Students with disabilities will not be charged flat-fee tuition.

While some have argued that flat-fee billing provides institutions with a more predictable revenue stream and encourages students to finish their degrees sooner, student representatives have strongly criticized the model for charging some students for education they do not receive.

“From a student perspective, we very much advocate for full per-credit tuition and that there needs to be some way to find funding for it so it can happen in the short term. Unfortunately, given the economic reality, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of money floating around the province,” Eftekarpour said.

Eight universities in the province currently charge flat-fees above the 60 per cent threshold. The University of Toronto is the only university in Ontario charging flat-fee tuition to students taking 60 per cent of a course load. With the new policy, the U of T could see a $16 million annual loss in revenue, the university’s president told the Toronto Star in anticipation of an increased threshold.

The CFS-Ontario, which also lobbied for the elimination of flat fees and deferral fees, had further recommended that institutions be prohibited from charging interest on unpaid balances and deposits on tuition.

With the new rules, students will continue to be charged late fees and interest if they are unable to pay by per-term deadlines. Institutions will be allowed to charge deposits on tuition, but they will be capped at $500 or 10 per cent of tuition, whichever is greater.

“Unfortunately, some of the proposals provide new opportunities for institutions to burden students with additional costs,” said CFS-Ontario chairperson Alastair Woods in a release. “Students will continue to advocate at the institutional and provincial levels to end these and other unfair fee practices.”

The ministry’s new policy also eliminates graduation fees but does not address ancillary and online testing fees. Both the CFS-Ontario and OUSA have maintained that students should not pay to be evaluated through learning software.

“The ministry didn’t say that [online testing fees] are okay now. It certainly was a difficult discussion about what the best solution is,” Eftekarpour said. “I think it’s unfortunate that student unions will now have to engage with their universities to hammer out some sort of process for all of this. We really wish it was just maintaining that these aren’t allowed.”

“Just to clarify, we’re not at all against the online testing materials,” he added. “It’s really good quality software and it’s a great learning experience. Students just can’t pay to be tested to use it, that’s just against our principles.”

This article was first published on the Canadian University Press's newswire.

A new proposal from the Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities suggests the province is looking to reduce deferral fees, regulate ancillary fees more and put a threshold on flat-fee charges.

According to the Ministry’s proposal, which has not yet been made public, changes to tuition payment and ancillary fees across Ontario could be implemented starting in 2015.

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The Ministry outlined a province-wide cap on late fees and reduction in deferral fees. Student advocates have been outspoken about deferral fees being an unnecessary penalty for students struggling financially and those who receive OSAP in two instalments.

While student groups including OUSA and CFS-Ontario acknowledged the Ministry’s work to address the issues, they continue to push for elimination of deferral fees and flat-fee tuition.

Currently at McMaster University, students opting into an OSAP “Flex Plan” are charged $35 per term in deferral fees.

Non-OSAP students unable to make a full payment by Sept. 1 are charged a one-time $35 late fee on top of monthly interest, which amounts to 14.4 per cent annually.

Spencer Graham, Vice-President (Education) of the McMaster Students Union, said deferral fees are unfair and should ideally be eliminated, not just reduced.

“We believe universities should have flexibility in their funds for students who will end up paying their tuition anyway,” Graham said.

The Ontario government also addressed ancillary fees in its proposal. According to OUSA, Ontario students pay some of the highest ancillary fees in the country. The Ministry proposed to clarify that institutions cannot charge extra fees for credential completion or graduation.

“We’re pretty happy the government is starting to talk to us more about technology,” Graham said. “A lot of programs use technology that charges students extra – if those things are made mandatory, that’s not allowed.”

Both the MSU and OUSA are recommending a 20 per cent off rebate for students who have to buy e-learning materials. Their estimate is that 20 per cent is roughly the evaluation component that should already be covered in students’ tuition.

The MSU’s “Stop, You’ve Paid Enough” campaign launched this fall encouraged students to report and take notice of “mandatory” course materials besides textbooks that they had to pay for out of pocket.

For example, software such as APLIA, CAPSIM and Mastering Chemistry should not be mandated by professors for evaluation purposes.

“To get around the Ministry’s rules, professors can make it an optional part of your grades. For organic chemistry, for example, it’s just not included in your course breakdown so you would be evaluated based on 90 per cent instead of 100,” Graham said.

“You may also have the option to have a percentage added to your final exam…But we don’t think students should have to opt out of assignments.”

Graham said he is currently following up on one student’s report of Top Hat Monocle’s interactive classroom software being mandated in a course.

While many students are required to buy iClickers, the technology does not fall with other e-learning materials that cannot be mandated, since students can still use their iClickers or sell them after they complete a course.

The Ministry’s proposal to put an 80 per cent threshold on flat fees would not apply to McMaster, which charges tuition per credit. However, nine universities in Ontario currently have flat-fee models. The University of Toronto, for example, charges students taking a 60 per cent course load the same tuition as students taking a full course load.

 

In a leaked framework proposal, the province expressed an urgent need for universities and colleges to further specialize in niche areas. The Ontario government sent the draft to administrators, seeking clarification on strategic enrolment plans and feedback on metrics tied to funding.

The leaked document, entitled “Ontario’s Proposed Differentiation Policy Framework: Draft Discussion Paper” and marked confidential, comes on the heels of expected changes to the post-secondary sector by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

The document stresses the need “to protect the gains of the last 10 years” in the face of current fiscal challenges.

The Ministry stated that it “has opted for differentiation as a primary policy driver for the system” and outlined eight components under which institutions can be evaluated. The components range from teaching and learning to innovation and economic development.

The government also proposed evaluation metrics to be used in funding considerations, based on discussions with various stakeholders since 2012. Some metrics include teaching-only faculty, student employment outcomes, employer satisfaction, research productivity and distribution of credentials.

Already, the proposed framework is raising questions about institutional autonomy and student impact, particularly for those living in northern and rural areas.

On Sept. 24, OPSEU, a union which represents more than 8,000 college faculty, requested that joint task forces be set up “to both mitigate the negative impact of any changes on faculty, but also to achieve the changes to the objectives.”

Since roundtable discussions began last year, CFS-Ontario and OCUFA have expressed concerns about differentiation being a cost-saving measure. OUSA has cautioned that teaching and research should not be separated in the differentiation process.

In response to recent concerns, TCU minister Brad Duguid said, “We [the province] will not be micromanaging but we do have a stewardship role.” He said the province would “use funding mechanisms to drive change in the system.”

“If there’s a world-class institution doing something in one area and another institution down the road wants to get in on it, that doesn’t really make sense,” he said.

Duguid also emphasized the importance of “building a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism.”

“Some of our institutions are doing a tremendous job [of doing that]. We need to encourage that because it’s going to benefit graduates in any field.”

For McMaster University, a large-sized school with approximately 24,000 full-time students, one challenge will be to reconcile high research intensity with a student-centred approach - two facets that have been identified as equally important in the University’s 2011 “Forward With Integrity” mandate. With greater differentiation, it remains to be seen how the university will effectively balance the two priorities.

McMaster’s provost, David Wilkinson, said the proposed framework is not surprising but it is unclear how the province will move forward in terms of funding.

“It’s too early to tell what the impacts [of the framework] might be,” Wilkinson said. “It’s certainly a competitive process and it does force us to demonstrate to the ministry how we can be more effective than other universities. It will also provide certain avenues for collaboration.”

Like other Ontario universities, McMaster is already differentiated to an extent—for example, the University is well known for its school of medicine and flagship interdisciplinary programs.

Laurentian University, a smaller institution in Sudbury with a total of 9,700 students, has also been setting itself apart from other institutions. Laurentian released its strategic plan in 2012, outlining the University’s distinctive programs, including mining engineering, sports psychology and applied geophysics.

Laurentian president Dominic Giroux said the university has looked to expand programs that aren’t readily available elsewhere.

“When I first came in [Apr. 2009], the strategic plan was 16 pages and had 102 priorities – I wanted the board of governors to submit to us a report of no more than five pages to identify a limited number of signature programs in research excellence. It took us about 10 months. What came out loud and clear at the initial stage was the need to focus, focus, focus,” Giroux said.

“Differentiation shouldn’t lead to program expansions or closures - it’s an issue of where more space should be allocated,” Giroux said.

By Oct. 11, administrators are expected to respond to the government’s proposed framework. The government stated it would provide a finalized framework by late October.

While various groups have been consulted since 2012, the government will negotiate only with institutions about metrics and funding. Universities’ strategic mandate agreements will be under negotiation until spring 2014.

In a white paper released earlier this month, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives took aim at the Ontario Liberal government’s “30% Off Ontario Tuition” grant, among other initiatives in the post-secondary sector.

A chief concern that has been raised about the grant is that only about 200,000 students received it last year. That is about two-thirds of eligible students and one-third of all post-secondary students.

To give students more time to apply this year, the deadline was extended from the end of January to Friday, March 1.

Launched in 2012, the grant offers 30 per cent off the average tuition for university and college to lower-middle income students. The Ontario government has set aside about $400 million for the program per year.

It is estimated that 300,000 students are eligible for the grant. However, many students are either unaware that it exists, or unaware that they do not need to receive OSAP in order to apply for the grant.

The PCs “Higher Learning for Better Jobs” paper argues that the Ontario Liberals have been spending public money on the program to “fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“The Ontario Tuition Grant can thus simply be summed as an idea sold as a benefit to all students, when only a fraction receive it,” reads the paper.

In lieu of the grant, universities and colleges should be “empowered to administer a student financial aid system that grows as tuition increases,” according to the PCs.

The paper also cites a briefing note from the Canadian Federation of Students: “Students are concerned that the Liberal tuition fee grant excludes two-thirds of students in Ontario.”

Ontario’s new Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Brad Duguid, said axing the program is “unacceptable” and expressed concerns about a two-tiered education system.

“We think that is economically irresponsible, and I consider it to be socially reprehensible,” said Duguid.

He added that the PCs’ proposal to end the grant could have repercussions for several groups, including lower-income students, aboriginal students, student-athletes and students with disabilities.

Duguid took over from MPP John Milloy earlier this February.

Duguid confirmed that the number of students who have received the 30 off grant so far this year surpassed last year’s number.

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) supports the 30 off grant, but has recommended that the Ministry expand eligibility requirements and change the tuition framework.

OUSA has argued that adjusting the grant to inflation is not enough, since tuition rates are rising at a faster rate than inflation.

“In nine years, though the value of the grant will grow to over $2,000 annually per-student, eligible students will be paying exactly what they pay today,” according to an OUSA policy paper released in 2012.

“I understand the concern, but we haven’t set the tuition framework yet for the next number of years,” said Duguid. “I’ll certainly be taking the students’ views under consideration as we work with post-secondary institutions as well to set an acceptable tuition rate.”

Duguid said a new tuition framework would be announced “fairly soon.”

“As a new minister, I want to reach out a little more before we make any final decisions,” he said.

Student and faculty groups in Ontario don’t like what the government has in store for the future of post-secondary education.

In response to a recent discussion paper by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), several groups say they do not agree with Minister Glen Murray’s proposed reforms.

Key issues raised by student leaders include government intrusion in post-secondary education, tuition hikes, a rapid shift toward technology-based education and incentivization of entrepreneurial learning.

The Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario (CFS Ontario) and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) are among those concerned about a perceived ‘unprecedented intrusion’ of government in the post-secondary sector.

“People who are in the best position to determine what's best for students are students themselves, faculty members and university administrators,” said Graeme Stewart, communications manager at OCUFA. “We want to keep decision-making power with [those parties].”

The MTCU’s discussion paper, entitled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge” was drafted this past summer. To the dismay of student leaders, the paper was written without student consultation and publicized in late August during the back-to-school rush.

The paper comes on the heels of a controversial leaked policy paper in February, tentatively entitled "3 Cubed." The leaked document suggested that universities should increase efficiency by offering more three-year degrees and allowing students to get more than half their credits online.

MTCU’s recent summer discussion paper acknowledges a rapidly changing post-secondary education sector and the need for Ontario institutions to respond.

Though the proposal outwardly rejects efficiency-focused strategies to curb costs, it also aligns itself with the trend of "high quality outcome-based credentials" becoming the norm.

The report says “cost reductions and the elimination of redundancies are essential parts of our government’s fiscal plan,” but these are not enough to meet the fiscal challenges.

In the long term, the Ministry sees “adopting innovation in the sector to drive productivity” as the other half of the equation.

One proposed reform, a simpler credit transfer system, has already been implemented in a recent partnership between seven universities and has generally been well received.

“Credit transfer, online learning, different experiential options - these are all good things. Our concern is that the government seems to be saying: we’re going to tell you what to do, when to use online learning, when to use learning technologies, when to do co-op,” said Stewart.

There are several shared concerns put forward by CFS Ontario and OCUFA, showing overlap between student and faculty reactions to the Ministry's proposal.

 

Underfunded Ontario PSE sector

Respondents pointed to the fact that Ontario’s post-secondary sector is the least funded in the nation. Per-student funding currently stands at $8,349, which is 34 per cent below the national average, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report.

“The underfunding problem is decades old in Ontario,” said Stewart, who cited Ontario’s per-student funding as the primary reason for a higher student-faculty ratio.

By 2009, Ontario’s ratio of students to full-time faculty was nearly seven per cent higher than the national average, according to a separate report by Stats Canada. Today, there are roughly 27 students for every professor in Ontario.

“This means students can’t have the same face-to-face interaction, professors aren’t as available, students find themselves in larger classes and they have fewer course choices. It also means universities don’t have the money to restore their older buildings,” said Stewart.

 

Higher rate of tuition increase

“When the government allows per-student funding to decrease, that puts pressure on institutions to increase tuition fees because they have to replace that revenue,” said Stewart.

This year, tuition fees across the nation have risen at more than three times the rate of inflation. Student and faculty representatives argue that this would create a more elite system and diminish accessibility to higher education.

“I don’t think we can say that right now, or even a couple of years ago, tuition fees were at the right place and we should increase rates with inflation,” said Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of CFS Ontario.

“Tuition fees are beyond the point where we can simply freeze them and be happy with that," said King.

CFS Ontario has drafted two tuition fee proposals for the most recent provincial budget that would have tuition fees reduced immediately by 25 per cent.

 

Emphasis on performance-based funding and incentivization

CFS Ontario criticized the proposal’s emphasis on ‘entrepreneurial learning’ and the practice of subsidizing private sector research via the post-secondary education system.

In their response, CFS Ontario asserts that “promoting the creation of business incubators or incentivizing entrepreneurial education in the province’s public colleges and universities does not facilitate knowledge, innovation or creativity.”

OCUFA similarly criticized the provincial government’s ‘performance funding’ model, saying it “makes quality improvement impossible” and unfairly punishes students.

“I don’t think the minister has a totally clear idea of what he wants yet, but our concern is that the recommendations in the paper tend to push the [post-secondary education] system toward this kind of labour market focus,” said Stewart.

 

Using technology as a cost-saving measure

“Students are concerned that online courses are going to be implemented as a cost-saving measure, when we know that to actually produce a high-quality online education is quite expensive,” said King.

There have been no concrete proposals put forward yet mandating that three out of five courses be online, said King, referring to the contents of the leaked ‘3 Cubed’ ministry document earlier this year.

However, she said there is continued concern among students that the education sector is headed in this direction.

 

The ministry asked that formal responses to the discussion paper be sent in by Sept. 30. Respondents include CFS (national), COPE, COU and OPSEU.

King and Stewart said they don’t know of any definitive timeline for a response from the Ministry, but representatives continue to be open to discussions with the government while awaiting a follow-up.

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