Left: Sandra Pupatello (campaign photo), Right: Kathleen Wynne (Silhouette file photo)

Post-secondary education has flown under the radar in the Ontario Liberal leadership race, to be decided next weekend.

While all of the candidates have identified paying down the deficit and creating jobs as economic priorities for Ontario, it’s not as clear how each plans to tackle the education sector, especially at the post-secondary level.

Of the six candidates who entered the race, only two released a separate statement on post-secondary education, and one of them has dropped out of the race.

After last weekend’s polling, Sandra Pupatello leads Kathleen Wynne among delegates, 504 to 463. The race is expected to end in a push to the end between the two.

Pupatello, a former Windsor MPP and education minister who chose not to run for re-election last year, is focusing on four issues: Northern Ontario, jobs and the economy, rural Ontario and social policy.

Like many other candidates, Pupatello has not directly addressed post-secondary education, but expressed that she wants to return to collective bargaining with teachers at the primary and secondary level.

Wynne, a Toronto MPP and former education minister, released her platform on post-secondary education last week.

Wynne wants to set up a youth advisory council similar to the one she established when she was the Minister of Education. The council would comprise representatives from student associations, Aboriginal youth, as well as those who have not pursued a post-secondary education.

On her promise to create more work and internship opportunities for students, Wynne said, “the labour force and the labour market don’t match.”

Gerard Kennedy, Harinder Takhar and Eric Hoskins have also responded to rising levels of youth unemployment, promising to create incentives for businesses to hire youth. However, they did not address quality of education in their platforms.

Regarding tuition, which has become particularly contentious in Ontario following the student protests in Quebec, Wynne said a sustained funding model with no cuts would be more realistic than tuition freezes or reductions.

“We have sustained funding set aside for education. What we won’t necessarily be able to do is increase funding,” said Wynne.

“I worry about loss of access if the government has to subsidize certain groups and not others,” said Wynne.

Glen Murray, former Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities who was first to enter the race, withdrew his bid last Thursday to endorse Wynne.

Before leaving the race, Murray proposed a radical ‘no money down tuition’ plan that would require payment based on income levels after graduation.

CFS-Ontario has repeatedly lobbied for province-wide tuition cuts, and expressed dissent for Murray’s plan. OUSA, an undergraduate student alliance representing McMaster, does not intend to take a stance on the candidates.

Given the heated debates that have arisen over youth unemployment and tuition hikes, why aren’t more candidates talking about post-secondary education?

Alex Sevigny, a McMaster communications professor who has worked as an advisor in three Liberal campaigns in Hamilton, says post-secondary education hasn’t been a salient issue in the provincial race because “it hasn’t been made a big issue.”

Teachers at the primary and secondary level, on the other hand, have elicited more of a response. They are also a big force in the delegates who will be voting, noted Sevigny.

“College and university professors have a less cohesive presence in the voting body within delegates,” he added.

Sevigny, who has worked with Liberal MPPs Judy Marsales, Ted McMeekin and Gerard Kennedy, now endorses Kennedy for Ontario Premier.

“Party renewal is a major concern of this leadership race, and so is the economy,” said Sevigny. “So far it’s been a very collaborative race. Whoever wins will be using portions of other candidates’ ideas.”

“We’re all Liberals but we have different priorities,” said Wynne, who has been vocal about her willingness to collaborate. “Investment in education has to be part of our policy.”

The question is how much investment will be made, how funds will be used, and to what extent post-secondary education will become a priority in the shadow of economic concerns.

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