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Harris gives private U's thumbs up
By Chris Lackner
Premier Mike Harris has rolled out the red carpet for private universities in the province of Ontario.
Last Thursday, following a Progressive Conservative fund-raiser at the Hilton Hotel in London celebrating the fifth-year anniversary of Tory rule, Premier Mike Harris gave his endorsement to private institutions entering Ontario.
"Bring them on," Harris said regarding privatization. "We believe we can compete. We're totally committed to our public university and college system and we feel that they can meet the needs of our population."
Harris explained the Internet and new technology was drawing a significant number of students out of Ontario. "It's time to take a look and see if there's a role for private universities to play in Ontario," he said. "If feasible, they could help retain and attract students."
Rosario Marzhese, education critic and Member of Parliament for the provincial New Democratic Party, said privatization is completely unnecessary.
"Our public system is tremendous and recognized across North America," he explained. "What can a private system possibly give us?"
Marzhese said he was concerned public money would find its way into private institutions through tax incentives, student loans, grants and the free-loading of other resources from public schools.
But Harris vowed private universities would get no financial backing. "Our colleges and universities are strong," he said. "They are the only ones that will receive provincial support."
University Students' Council president Dave Braun, said it was the USC's job to ensure that the government keeps its promise.
"We're against [privatization], but it's here," he explained. "We were riding the horse that says no, but now we have to get on a new horse which is holding [the government] to accountability."
Joel Harden, Ontario chair for the Canadian Federation of Students, said although the Conservatives are enjoying an economic surplus, funding for public institutions in Ontario has been constantly one of the lowest levels in North America.
"If the government can't invest in public education under a good economy, what's going to happen in a recession?" Harden questioned.
Marzhese said the province's interest should be in maintaining, enhancing and financing the current public system. "The starvation of our public system has led the government to seek private education providers."
Marie Bountrogianni, Ontario Liberal critic for colleges and universities, said private universities were not in the Conservative's mandate, or part of their election platform. "It's terribly un-democratic," she said. "There needs to be public hearings on this issue."
"We don't have a Premier who really respects education or intelligence," she said. "Who can blame him? When someone gets educated, he loses a vote."
Bountrogianni explained private American universities like Harvard, received a lot of their funds from the public. "They are now being referred to as publicly supported private universities," she said.
Harris explained private universities, if feasible, could bring more students to Ontario and give them more options. "One of my political opponents said 'Can you imagine that we might have a Harvard here in Ontario?'God I hope so."