Investing in university infrastructure is an investment in the future

Posted on August 31, 2023 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
August 31, 2023.   By Deborah MacLatchy, Contributor

Without proper investment from all levels of government, universities cannot adequately prepare the next generation for future challenges.

By 2025, Canada will welcome 1.45 million newcomers. New and current Canadians are looking for post secondary opportunities for themselves and their children, affordable housing, and places where they can find community, recreation and cultural activities, and supports.

Universities are uniquely positioned to support our communities, but we cannot do it alone. Without proper investment from all levels of government, universities cannot adequately prepare the next generation for the challenges the future will bring.

In the coming years, similar to the post-war baby boom, we will experience an influx of youth and talent in Canada, yet universities are not seeing government investment in their campuses in the way they did in the 1960s. Instead, universities are facing maintenance backlogs and space crunches due to many years of stagnant funding.

In 2019, the Canadian Association of University Business Officers released a deferred maintenance report, noting universities require $17 billion in maintenance and upgrade work, with three quarters of facilities with systems such as HVAC and plumbing reaching the ends of their life cycles. This was a 30 per cent increase in deferred work from 2014.

The last major federal funding investment for university infrastructure was in 2016, through the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. A $2 billion investment, earmarked for campus modernization, did provide a boost to more than 300 infrastructure projects across the country. However, because of the conditions of the funding, the vast majority of these were already planned, resulting in very few net new projects.

In light of these needs, many provinces have increased programs that provide one-time funding. In Ontario, , the province has effectively doubled capital grants under the Facilities Renewal Program (FRP) over three years, earmarking $466 million for Ontario universities and colleges to address their deferred maintenance backlogs. The first instalment of this funding in 2020-2021 was a $73-million increase over the previous year.

We need a bold, comprehensive vision to bring our publicly-assisted university campuses into this century so that they can continue to support the needs of our communities. Residences provide affordable housing for students, which relieves pressure on local housing markets and creates foot traffic for local businesses. Technology enhanced classrooms provide students of all ages and life stages the space and equipment they need to learn. Laboratories and research equipment provide researchers the tools to drive discovery and innovation. And as our communities grow, university facilities are increasingly filling the need for space and services for public education, arts and culture, and recreational and athletic programming.

Without these spaces and services, we jeopardize the next generation’s future.

In the face of dwindling government infrastructure funding, universities have found innovative ways to fund new buildings and facilities. At Wilfrid Laurier University, we partnered with the YMCA, federal, provincial, and municipal governments, and secured donations from alumni and philanthropists to build a new athletic facility in downtown Brantford, which now serves as a shared recreational facility for both students and community members. Many universities, Laurier included, are also pursuing or plan to pursue public-private partnerships to construct new residence buildings to meet the housing needs of students.

These are patchwork solutions, however, pushing university leaders to make difficult choices about what projects to prioritize, and what projects to defer. And with flat tuition revenue in Ontario, universities have dwindling funds to launch large capital projects, even in partnership with private corporations or donors, as these partnerships often require the institution to come to the table with matching funds.

Clearly, we are in a pivotal period for making decisions about the future.

An investment in the infrastructure of our universities is an investment in our communities and the future prosperity and well-being of all Canadians. We cannot afford to defer this any longer.

Deborah MacLatchy is president and vice-chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University.

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