Doug Ford helped create a crisis for Ontario’s universities. Now it’s up to him to save them

Posted on March 9, 2021 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Political Opinion
March 8, 2021.   By Martin Regg Cohn, Ontario Politics Columnist

Bleeding cash, Ontario’s universities are begging for a $500 million cash infusion to stay alive during COVID-19.

Cry me a river, you say.

Everyone is hurting and many are dying in mid-pandemic. The ivory tower high in the sky may be bottom of the list for heartbreak stories that command public attention — and, in turn, catch the eye of politicians in power.

But Doug Ford’s government never fails to surprise us — for better or for worse, in good times and bad. If $500 million sounds like a lot, consider this unexpected good news from a normally hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-headed politician:

“The need is real and it is urgent,” the mighty minister said gravely, proceeding to announce precisely that amount in emergency funding just last week, just in time:

“They need ongoing operating funding in 2021 and it’s important that we step up and provide more financial relief,” he continued, because the government’s “partners are on the front lines.”

Oh wait — wrong ministry, different constituency. Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark wasn’t talking about those universities in need but the municipalities he minds — meaning all those politically connected mayors (yes he was one, once).

University presidents aren’t quite so well represented at the cabinet table. Nor do university students — confined to quarters amid COVID-19 — wield the same political clout.

But if Ford’s Tories can find a cool $500 million for municipalities, it’s worth asking why they can’t dig deeper into their increasingly liquid treasury to help universities. No one is too proud to beg in a pandemic, but this plea is different.

The onus is on this Progressive Conservative government to plug a hole very much of its own making. The numbers tell the story.

(Full disclosure: I am a visiting practitioner in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University, and a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.)

It so happens that the $500 million ask represents roughly 10 per cent of the $5 billion in post-secondary spending by the province every year. Remember that percentage.

Two years ago, with the premier feeling empowered by a populist honeymoon, he unilaterally and summarily slashed tuition — also by 10 per cent, which added up to more than $440 million in recurring revenue losses. Without warning, without consultation, without considering the consequences.

And why not? It wasn’t his money — merely an opportunity to play Robin Hood with someone else’s money.

Except that, dollar for dollar and student for student, the Robin Hood analogy misses the mark. Shaving tuition by 10 per cent helps the affluent far more, given how disproportionately they predominate over the working poor at the university level.

If the cut didn’t help students much, it certainly hurt campuses. They had no way to make up the money, because the government didn’t step up after the tuition cut — just sat back and took credit for it.

Which made it the unkindest cut of all: It came at no cost to provincial revenues, while shortchanging university balance sheets.

It had everything to do with politics and populism, not pedagogy or practicality. Then came the pandemic, which made it even more precarious for both universities and students.

Exiled to online classes during COVID-19, students have been demanding, understandably, a customer discount to reflect what feels like a downgrade — connected via Zoom but otherwise disconnected. Would that they could, universities can’t afford another cut — they are tapped out after being stiffed by Ford’s Tories, in no position to trim tuition a second time in two years.

That last 10 per cent tuition shortfall was blamed for virtually bankrupting Sudbury’s Laurentian University, which filed for creditor protection last month. While not all universities are quite as vulnerable, they were all left exposed.

The obvious way to fill the fiscal hole would be higher tuition fees paid by affluent foreign students, but that fell by the wayside as distance learning and visa restrictions kept them away. The forced closures of bookstores, cafeterias and high priced rental venues also cost universities dearly.

Ford’s misplaced populism and a miserable pandemic combined to create a $1 billion shortfall province-wide. The Council of Ontario Universities says its members have found savings for roughly half that amount through one-time belt-tightening, but that still leaves campuses trying to fill a $500 million hole.

Fairness demands that Ford’s Tories make universities whole again. Before they fall apart.

The government was right to help municipalities with a $500 million payout this month. By that same logic, universities should not be left out in the cold at the same time.

The premier’s antics created the problem in the first place with that 10 per cent cut. A compensating 10 per cent top-up today is the price to pay to help universities get over the hump — through government funding, not a tuition increase (students cannot be expected to pay, given the disruptions of the pandemic).

In the aftermath, there will be a reckoning for post-secondary education. COVID-19 exposed the gaps in what can best be described as a clunky “customer experience” on campus, with tenured and superannuated professors proffering middling lectures in mid-pandemic.

Post-pandemic, it cannot be business or teaching as usual, as both politicians and students demand higher values — and greater value for money. The more enlightened universities understand the need to reinvent themselves, but shock therapy is no way to nurse them back to health — not in the recovery phase when students are at their most vulnerable.

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