No consequences for graduates, please

Written by Colin Aitchison and Zachary Rose

A disturbing proposal from members of a tech industry lobbying group, the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI), has been making the rounds in Ontario recently. As reported a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail, it seems that several CEOs associated with the organization have suggested that there should be policy in place to punish Ontario graduates who choose to leave the country for work.

According to them, Ontario invests heavily in higher education, so if graduates of “critical” programs choose to leave rather than joining the province’s workforce, they should be forced to pay extra, retroactive tuition to reimburse the public. They argue that this policy would be a matter of “reclaiming our collective investment in their education” and would allow the Province to use financial aid “as not just a carrot but also a stick.” On the other hand, those who remain in Ontario would continue to enjoy subsidized tuition. They argue their new system should replace our current, needs-based assistance program.

Their argument rests on the notion that students in Ontario graduate with an obligation to the economy - a position that is hard to defend. For one thing, this view completely ignores the economic benefit students bring to Ontario during their studies; students contribute to local economies as consumers, and by attending university they allow institutions to thrive, creating jobs, and driving regional economic activity. Also, while CCI points out that Ontario’s tuition is heavily subsidized, these subsidies (quite correctly) focus on students with considerable financial need, who would otherwise not be able to pursue higher education. In other cases, government assistance comes in the form of loans, which graduates repay with above-prime interest. While it is certainly desirable for Ontario graduates to stay, it is difficult to sympathize with the belief that they have a duty to do so.

The most unnerving aspect of this recommendation is that it dismisses the very notion of needs-based financial aid, which aims to ensure equitable access and high participation in post-secondary education. Not only is such a policy critical to the development of a workforce that can face the challenges of the future, but it ensures that future can be shared by those who might otherwise be excluded – such as those from lower income backgrounds or marginalized groups.

Replacing this system with a punitive structure designed to limit the choices of graduates would no doubt have the harshest effects on students from lower income backgrounds, whose financial status leaves them with less flexibility to turn down opportunities outside of Canada, and who would feel the financial strain of penalties most acutely. To adopt CCI’s proposal to replace needs-based aid with aid contingent on certain behaviour would be a massive step backwards, to say nothing of how it would infringe on the rights of individuals to choose where to live and work.

Additionally, this proposal misses the broader context in which our graduates are leaving: notwithstanding the difficulties some industries may face in recruiting new talent, youth unemployment in Ontario is high. Placing a barrier on graduate mobility would simply hinder our students from making the best choices for their own careers. Instead of limiting Ontario’s graduates, we should be looking for options to increase employment rates across our province.

Forcing students to pay higher retroactive tuition based on where they choose to work would undermine the excellent and necessary work being done on our current, needs-based aid system. Moreover, it would have disproportionately damaging effects on graduates from the lowest income backgrounds. If Ontario students with certain kinds of training are leaving in droves for greener pastures, the remedy is clear: we must make remaining a more attractive option. If Ontario employers need skilled workers, they must find ways to compete, not hamstring our graduates so they have no choice but to stay.


Colin Aitchison
OUSA Steering Committee Member
WLU Students' Union VP: University Affairs

Zachary Rose
Executive Director
Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance