Here’s why Doug Ford can get away with squeezing Ontario’s colleges and universities

Posted on February 29, 2024 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion
February 29, 2024.   By Martin Regg Cohn Political Columnist

Post-secondary education institutions will always be the sacrificial lambs of this province’s politics, Martin Regg Cohn writes.

The problem with Premier Doug Ford’s pocketbook populism is that it’s so infectious.

It catches on with voters. And latches on to opposition politicians.

Ford led the way by cutting and then freezing tuition for campuses across Ontario after taking power in 2018. Now, New Democrats and Liberals are parroting his tuition position — freeze for the foreseeable future — lest they be outflanked.

Ford sets the affordability agenda and his rivals flatter the premier by aping him. Students approve, parents applaud and politicians play along to harvest every vote.

In their shared political playbook, post-secondary populism can’t be beat. Too bad it leaves Ontario’s colleges and universities holding the bag.

You don’t need a PhD in math to figure out that someone pays a price for a freeze and a free ride. The problem with pocketbook populism is that it’s a shell game, not a serious strategy.

Ford understands that. Just look at his growing lead in the latest public opinion polls, where voters are rewarding him for his generosity and grandiosity.

Refund licence plate fees! Banish more road tolls! Cut gas taxes!

Few complain because — here’s the magic — our roads still get built even if the taxes and tolls aren’t collected. That’s because the funding is found, magically, from another budgetary stash of cash — albeit at the expense of something else.

Now consider the higher education equation: Ford cuts funding by 10 per cent, then freezes it every year thereafter — all the while refusing to make up the difference.

Then his Progressive Conservative government goads colleges and universities into recruiting foreign students with extraordinarily extortionary tuition rates to bolster their bottom line. Until the resulting chaos forced the federal government to clamp down on this costly free for all, cutting off campuses from their newest addiction.

After five years of policy bankruptcy, Ford’s Tories landed on the Canadian tradition of a commission. They empowered and empanelled a blue-ribbon panel, presumably to provide political cover to do what must one day — some day — be done.

Predictably, the panel urged the government to raise tuition rates amid rising inflation and/or bolster government funding to make up the difference. This week, the Ford government decided to ignore its own experts, proclaiming that tuition shall remain in the deep freeze now and for years to come.

“I will not apologize for continuing to freeze tuition,” Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop proclaimed, echoing the premier’s impromptu talking points earlier this month.

This is not the time, the Tories say, for a tuition increase. If not now in 2024, neither was it time in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 or 2023; nor will be 2025 or 2026 — you get the idea.

Which raises a reasonable question on tuition: Is there ever a good time for a politician to allow for an increase, if only to keep up with inflation?

Answer: Former NDP premier Bob Rae (later a Liberal) headed a similar tuition panel appointed by the Liberal premier of the day, Dalton McGuinty, two decades ago. It concluded that students so clearly benefit from the public investment in their education that they should also contribute their fair share — with the caveat that student aid should remove barriers to accessibility.

The last Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne built on that principle by boosting student aid to the point that those in need would effectively be spared out of pocket tuition, with more generous grants in lieu of loans. The Tories trashed that formula in favour of lower tuition for all — rich and poor — at the expense of campus operating budgets.

This week, Dunlop ‘s ministry had fun with figures by coughing up — and then dressing up — roughly $1 billion in one-time funding, stretched over three years, spread across so many areas that it amounts to a rounding error and a strategic error.

It allocates barely $700 million — or roughly $233 million a year — to be divvied up among colleges and universities in a post-secondary system with 47 campuses. That’s a fraction of the nearly $2.5 billion funding infusion recommended by the government’s own expert panel, which also called for a five per cent tuition increase that the Tories are ignoring.

This stingy strategy comes mere weeks after campuses discovered that the cash cow foisted upon them by the Ford government — high foreign student fees — can no longer be milked so murkily.

Are the premier and his Progressive Conservatives hostile to higher education? Or merely fixated on the bottom line?

In truth, their policy is neither idiocy nor ideology, merely expediency. There are no votes to be had in higher tuition for higher education, and there are no votes to be lost in starving the system of proper funding to keep it afloat (which is why the previous Liberal governments of Wynne and McGuinty also froze the base operating grants to colleges and universities year after year).

A government that dares to shortchange health care will hear about it from doctors and nurses, patients and their families; a politician who squeezes primary or secondary schools will face protests from teachers and parents.

But colleges and universities are the sacrificial lambs of Ontario politics: Underfunded, frozen and fleeced by all parties all the time.

(Disclosure: I’m a senior fellow at Toronto Metropolitan University and at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.)

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