Half a million Ontario college students have the option of walking away from a now-condensed fall semester with a full tuition refund in the aftermath of a five-week-long faculty strike.
Students will have two weeks from the resumption of classes on Tuesday to decide whether or not they want to continue with the semester, Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews said Monday. The province's 24 colleges will be expected to foot the bill for the refund, she said.
"I didn't think it was right that colleges would actually financially benefit from the strike," Matthews said. "I think it's appropriate to actually return that money to students."
The move comes as 12,000 college faculty were back on the job Monday after the strike was ended over the weekend with back-to-work legislation.
Ontario's Liberal government first tried to introduce and pass the back-to-work legislation in one fell swoop Thursday night but the NDP forced the legislature to sit through the weekend to debate the bill, ultimately passing it Sunday afternoon.
Matthews defended the rebate program as the "right thing to do".
"I think students successfully argued that students need some kind of compensation for this," she said. "If it sets a precedent, I think it's a good precedent to set."
A similar tuition rebate was offered to students after a strike in 2006 shuttered Ontario colleges for 18 days.
Matthews said students who continue with the fall semester will be eligible to receive up to $500 for unexpected costs they incurred because of the labour dispute, such as childcare fees, rebooked train or bus tickets, or rent.
"I don't think any amount of money will be able to pay for the amount of anxiety that students have suffered through this whole process," she said.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown called on the government to match the funds given to students impacted by the strike dollar-for-dollar.
"People have made Christmas, holiday plans, flights back home," Brown said. "Frankly, the colleges have saved expenses, have saved costs during this period."
NDP advanced education critic Peggy Sattler called the $500 compensation "absolutely inadequate." In addition to the financial hardship, students who decide to continue their semester are now faced with the daunting prospect of trying to complete five weeks of school work into a compressed schedule.
"I'm hearing from students who are in an absolute panic over how they are ever going to be able to manage this compressed and accelerated semester," she said. "Half of Ontario's college students are parents, they are mature students. They have family obligations over the holidays. They are very, very worried over what this will mean to their ability to successfully complete their courses."
Colleges are extending their semesters so students don't lose their terms, but student advocates say trying to condense five missed weeks into roughly two extra ones will be stressful.
Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council, which bargained on behalf of the province's colleges, said every school will have a different approach on how it structures the remainder of the semester.
"Each college will assess a variety of factors such as available time based on cancelling fall reading weeks or extending the term into late December and or early January," Sinclair said in a statement. "Colleges will be closed between Christmas and New Years."
College Student Alliance President Joel Willett said his group had been pushing the government to offer the tuition refund so students could start fresh in the new year.
"There was worry that (the student's) year was compromised, relationships with faculty would be compromised," he said. "And there is a feeling that they wouldn't get the education that they paid for at the end of the day and graduate with an asterisk attached to their name for future employment opportunities."
Willett said regardless of the government policy, students will have to deal with the aftermath of the labour dispute.
"The transition is going to be very difficult," he said. "Students are the ones who are ultimately going to have to pick up this broken semester and try to focus on being able to get the best education possible."