Ontario needs to pony up more cash for colleges and universities

Posted on March 8, 2024 in Education Debates

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TVO.org – Opinion/Education
Mar 6, 2024.   Written by David Moscrop

OPINION: A short-term, piecemeal plan won’t work. The Ford government must provide stable, predictable funding for higher ed 

Last week, a global credit agency warned that the Ford government’s three-year, $1.3 billion funding plan to “stabilize” Ontario’s cash-strapped universities and colleges was a mere “stop gap.” DBRS Morningstar panned Education Minister Jill Dunlop’s efforts, saying they “fail to address the fundamental lack of revenue flexibility for Ontario universities.” It predicts universities will be left struggling to balance the budget and deliver high-quality education. Plus, critics were left asking: What happens three years from now when the funding runs out? Dunlop didn’t have an answer.

The funding shortage that universities and colleges in Ontario face is a structural and worsening problem driven by multiple factors. The government doesn’t spend enough on education. The government’s well-meaning and welcome tuition cut and freeze wasn’t accompanied by sufficient funding to make up for the ensuing revenue shortfall. While institutions tried to make some of the money back by increasing the number of international students they admit — students who pay sky-high tuition to attend — the incoming federal cap on international-student visas will exacerbate the crunch. In short, post-secondary institutions aren’t getting enough funding, nor do they have the levers to pull to remedy the problem.

In January, the government tried to argue that universities and colleges could help bridge their budget shortfalls by finding “efficiencies.” At the time, I pointed out how absurd that idea was. You can’t cut your way out of a structural deficit over which you have limited control. Nearly half the province’s universities are in or heading into deficit, and Ontario’s per-student post-secondary education funding is the worst in the country. Moreover, universities in Ontario are already plenty efficient.

The post-secondary funding crisis has been a long time coming. In the 1990s, the Mike Harris PC government set universities and colleges up for long-term failure by gutting education funding. But it wasn’t alone. The NDP did its own share of cutting. Between 1990 and 2001, post-secondary funding dropped $635 million as enrolment increased.

Higher-education institutions have never fully recovered from the cuts of the 1990s, and per-student funding hasn’t caught back up. Dunlop’s plan doesn’t come close to fixing the problem and, indeed, as Allison Jones reports, it offers less than half of what the government’s own expert blue-ribbon panel has called for.

The panel’s recommendations included an immediate 10 per cent grant boost indexed to inflation or 2 per cent for three years. The panel also recommended a 5 per cent tuition hike pegged to rise with inflation or 2 per cent and some amendments to financial aid to help poorer students.

Given that tuition is already unaffordable for many, at almost $8,000 a year, while the cost-of-living crisis continues in Ontario and throughout the country, raising tuition would hit students hard. Abuses of the international-student visa program — and unsustainable rates of visa approvals — suggest that relying on out-of-country students to close deficits won’t work either, not to mention the fact that the fees charged to these folks are exploitative. As noted, finding efficiencies won’t work either, since there are next to no efficiencies to be found. That leaves government grants as a source of funding.

To put it plainly, the Ford government needs to pony up more cash for colleges and universities. A lot more. That funding needs to be robust, predictable, and sustainable. The government could start raising much-needed money by not passing bad laws, such as Bill 124, and then having to fight them in court. The government’s Greenbelt giveaway and subsequent reversal was no doubt costly, too.

There are other ways to find money beyond good governance. The government could end cuts to the gas tax. It could end the licence-fee freeze and reinstitute plate registration. It could even spend less on highways and roads and more on public transit, which is cheaper and more efficient in the long run. Perhaps Ontario should indeed adopt a modest tuition increase, provided it’s offset with student-aid support for all who need it. I’m just spit-balling here, but there are surely some ideas to consider.

Funding education properly requires that the government prioritize and commit to doing so. A short-term, piecemeal funding plan won’t work. The Ford PCs won’t be able to solve decades of chronic post-secondary underfunding in a year or two or three. But they can begin the process of instituting stable, predictable, and sufficient funding. And they should. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. And in the long run, the money the government invests in education today will return more than it’s worth.

David Moscrop is a political theorist, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of “Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.”


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