top of page



The Ontario NDP needs a BIG Idea: Free Postsecondary Could Be It.


It has come to my attention through intermediaries that the Ontario NDP (ONDP) is searching for a big idea to place in the front window for the next provincial election in June of 2018. Free postsecondary education could just be that idea. One need only look at the surprising surge of self-declared “Democratic-Socialist” Bernie Saunders and notice that he is using what Americans call ‘tuition free college’ to fuel his campaign.


Over the years ideas such as public auto insurance, botched by the Rae government, have served as a centerpiece to galvanize a sleepy electorate that there is something worth fighting for in the election. Tom Mulcair tried national childcare and Pharma-care in 2015 but people thought, in Ontario at least, that childcare is slowly coming through the school system and Pharma-care is covered through so many existing company/union or private plans that it just didn’t catch fire.


Nevertheless, there is a need for a new dynamic progressive, popular, affordable program to sail the ONDP out of the political doldrums and back to the center of the Ontario debate. Without it, the Liberals become the default choice of the progressive Ontario majority who’s only real remaining role is that they block the extreme right PC Party from becoming the government. Talk about a lack of imagination.



All left-of-center policy, especially a lead policy, must pass three tests. It must be progressive, in that it advances the interests of the working class and other equity seeking groups… women, racialized minorities, Aboriginals, LGBTQ, refugees and so on. It must be popular and by that we mean overwhelmingly popular since it must be a vote shifting policy on a large scale. Finally it must be affordable. The modern electorate is very skeptical of pie-in-the-sky dreamer policy. The upper middle class and the real wealthy 1% certainly don’t need or want free tuition and by the way – they don’t want the poorer citizens to have it either.

It creates too much competition for their kids and ‘waters down’ their own degrees. They are also fearful that they will be handed the bill for any new social spending. They are right.


Canadian polling is difficult to find but American polling on ‘tuition free college’ shows that 62% of Americans support it including 82% of Democrats and 58% of Independents. (YouGov). Polls from the Washington Examiner and Huffington Post are almost identical. We expect Canadian results will show similar, overwhelming results.


It certainly helps that the Liberals would be put in the politically awkward position of campaigning against tuition free postsecondary or collapsing under its popularity and agreeing to implement it to save their government. This is, in fact how Canada moved Medicare from an NDP Saskatchewan to all of Canada. Why is it that Hillary Clinton cannot counter with a serious policy of her own in the tuition area to counter Bernie Saunders? Clearly, it is because too much of her money comes from Wall Street and ‘super PACs’. Saunders crowd-funds his fundraising to millions of Americans, average donation $62. Clinton is suffering from the fact that her role has become chief explainer to the progressive majority why they cannot have what they want.


Is it progressive? This is pretty close to obvious; many young working class people would get an enormous burden of crippling student loans lifted from their backs. Many who are outright deterred from considering college will reconsider. Still there will be naysayers even on the left who will consider free tuition to be an initial subsidy to the already affluent and fight back with complex ‘income contingent loan programs’.  All we can say to that is that ‘universality’ is a clearly establish progressive position. We don’t use income contingent methods to pay for health and we should not use them in the education field either. How is it that we get it that K-12 education should be free but postsecondary suddenly is different? The hackneyed argument runs that the individual benefits so much from post-secondary education that they need ‘some skin in the game’. Tuition plays exactly the role that it was designed for. It is meant to be a barrier to ‘lower classes’ and a guard dog to preserve really valuable education for the elite.


Let’s look at the following countries that offer tuition free college and university.


Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Cuba, Czech Republic, Iran, Ireland, Kuwait, Malta, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Mexico (almost free), Morocco, Poland, Scotland, Slovenia, Trinidad & Tobago.


The following countries charge only a very nominal ‘registration fee’.


Austria, Belgium, France, Kenya, Spain, Switzerland, Luxembourg.


By way of interest, it is the Anglo-Saxon based democracies that are clearly absent from the list (Scotland and Ireland being Celtic of course). This seems to follow an Anglo elite model rather than a continental and developing world model.


The list spans a group of nations from left to right. Some often have social-democratic governments; others have them anywhere from sometimes to never. Some are third world nations who nevertheless have got it together enough to offer tuition free college.


By way of contrast, Canada has the 6th highest undergraduate tuition and Ontario has the highest tuition in Canada.


The self-styled ‘Realists’ even on the left, will take a look at the possibilities of the issue, the fired up constituency of young people and their families but then, due to their total lack of imagination and political courage, start the drumbeat of “how about a tuition freeze” “how about income contingent loan programs” “how about a 10% tuition cut” all of which will totally demobilize the army of enthusiastic supporters who consider these reforms not worth fighting for.


What would work however is an explanation to the Ontario population that this is a project that will take a while? “In our first term we will eliminate all tuition from our community colleges, any fees for apprenticeship training and the first year of university. If re-elected we will continue the project and not rest until all public colleges and universities in Ontario are tuition free for Ontarians and the students of other provinces on a quid pro quo basis.”


What would the ONDP expect to hear from the PCs and Liberals? The kneejerk reaction of the Tories will naturally involve a lot of eye rolling and a declaration that ‘we just cannot afford another expensive social program. It will require a massive tax increase on the Ontario middle class and make our industries uncompetitive’. The Liberals will awkwardly agree with the Tories but also offer a lame proposal in the tuition direction. The Liberal position will be based on the concept that ‘our policy does not have to be perfect, it just has to be better than the Tories’.

The ONDP naturally will understand that affordability will be the area where the policy rises or falls with the Ontario population. It is clearly progressive and it will be wildly popular so long as average blue collar and lower middle class Ontarians deduce that they have more to gain than they have to lose.


Of course the first line of the affordability debate is easy. How do all of the nations above afford it? Few of them have the standard of living of Canada.  


The Green Party of Canada already is moving in the tuition free area.


Of course it can be dismissed as the ramblings of a one seat, 5% party at the national level that is unlikely to ever face the need to implement the policy but this is how progressive reform begins.


Gandhi’s famous quote obtains – “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”


The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has one of the clearest plans to totally eliminate tuition and how to pay for it with a realistic and progressive tax regime that involves small tax increases for corporations, small income tax increases for individuals making over $250 000 and a 0.01 tax on financial transactions.


Canadians have been told for 100 years that we cannot afford OAS and CPP, we cannot afford Medicare, we cannot afford EI, we cannot afford welfare, we cannot afford public housing or public transit or whatever. At one time we were told we cannot afford to take children out of the mines. The conservative position on these issues has always been wrong and this one is wrong as well.


It is the position of this report that a project to create a tuition free Ontario would galvanize the progressive vote in Ontario, marginalize the PCs, and make life very awkward for the Liberals forcing them to ‘put up or shut up’. Imagine a speaking tour of the ONDP leader that stopped at every university and college and spoke to Bernie Saunders sized crowds of young Ontarians. Imagine for a moment the family kitchen table discussions over the future of teenagers in the run up to the next election where families understand that an NDP government or even a much stronger NDP with Liberals in a minority position can reduce the crushing burden of student debt or worse the financial disincentive to continue at all.


Imagine a debate stage in the election where the entire discussion is high-jacked by NDP position on tuition pro or con.


Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?

-Robert Browning.

bottom of page