Ontario post-secondary education history revisited
TheStar.com – Opinion/Comment – Ontario post-secondary education history revisited: Fiscal responsibility and excellent schools are not contradictory, former premier says
Published On Wed Oct 28 2009. Mike Harris, Ontario Premier, 1995-2002
To benefit from history, we first have to understand it.
Today, Ontario is in the process of repeating an unfortunate time in its history. We have record-breaking deficits and record-breaking unemployment. The previous record was set in the early 1990s when the last big taxing, big spending premier drove deficits and unemployment through the roof.
Many are lining up to say that the current premier must not and cannot tackle the deficit by reducing the cost of the programs government offers. Many – incorrectly – speak about how our government’s effort to tackle the deficit we inherited meant a reduction in quality services like education. But let’s look at the facts.
Facing an economic wall, we moved quickly in 1995 to reduce the size and cost of government. It needed to be done. At the same time, we reduced taxes to stimulate private sector job creation and investment. It worked.
We balanced the budget on schedule and created more than 750,000 new private sector jobs in four years. That growth and prosperity lifted thousands of Ontarians from the despair of welfare into meaningful work and created the tax revenue for investments in both health and education.
But the turnaround did not happen easily or without effort and sacrifice across the public service. We led by example and cut the pay, office budgets and pensions of all MPPs. Then we kept our word and delivered the efficiencies promised in our platform.
One of those efficiencies meant our post-secondary education institutions had to find ways to provide students quality education with less government money. To their immense credit, the leaders of Ontario’s universities understood the magnitude of the financial pressures and the need for everyone to shoulder some of the burden. They met the challenge. Over the course of our first term in office, Ontario universities were more than able to make up for an initial grant reduction of $400 million. In fact, the total budget for universities actually rose by $300 million.
It was a wise response. After all, what sense would it make for students to graduate into a jobless economy?
As a government, we focused on investing in research, helping students and supporting excellence. We initiated a scholarship program for student support that doubled donations made by the private sector. With the eager support of our universities and their alumni, this program – originally budgeted at $100 million – grew to over $700 million.
In addition to the increased funding for scholarships and research, our government helped colleges and universities grow. We made record capital contributions to the building of universities. In 2001, we were proud to announce $60 million in capital funding for the new University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Durham. In all, we partnered with the private sector to provide more than $1.8 billion in capital funding to Ontario post-secondary institutes.
The commitment to educating the next generation of Ontarians is not simply a matter of investing more money; it’s a commitment to excellence that must be shared by government, universities, students and taxpayers. Our government’s record proves it.
Ontario universities helped us meet the financial realities of the last recession while creating excellence and increasing capacity. They did it by facing the challenges head on and working with the government to lever public and private investment.
Students shared in the challenge. While tuition costs rose, so did student aid and bursaries. Ontario currently has the highest university enrolment in Canada.
Given the reality of a deficit that is more than double the previous record, there is little doubt that Ontario’s public institutions are in for another round of belt-tightening. There is no surprise here; the massive restructuring that has hit every industry in Ontario has challenged all organizations to do more with less. No law of nature exempts public institutions from change.
Part of the leadership challenge is in recognizing that no public institution, be it a university, college or hospital, is an island. The province has to operate on a sound financial foundation in order to offer the basket of public goods needed by the taxpayer. Meeting the fiscal realities head on is not only the best way to prosperity, it’s the responsibility of public sector leaders.
Not everyone gets the challenge. In a recent Toronto Star article, dean Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management, notes that Ontario ranks 10th in per-capita university funding. But Ontario universities hold 10 of the top 25 rankings of Canadian universities. Two Ontario universities are ranked in the top 100 universities in the world.
Ontario students have access to world-class university programs at a cost that represents a real value to the student and the taxpayer.
One lesson from history is crystal clear: The longer we delay, the more we obfuscate, the more we fix the blame instead of the problem – the deeper the pain in finding solutions.
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