Ontario’s universities face a looming crisis. ‘Efficiencies’ aren’t the answer

Posted on January 14, 2024 in Education Delivery System

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TVO.org – Opinion/Education
Jan 10, 2024.   Written by David Moscrop

OPINION: Nearly half of the province’s publicly funded universities are heading for the red. The Tories’ response has been wholly inadequate — and unsurprising

Leave it to the Ford government to come up with a half-baked plan for higher education. Not long after forming government, in 2019, the Progressive Conservatives did a good thing in a bad way: they kept a campaign promise and cut tuition for domestic students in Ontario by 10 per cent and froze fees.

Now the tuition freeze, along with low and stagnant per-student funding from Queen’s Park, pandemic costs, and salary obligations to make up after the Bill 124 debacle, has universities feeling the pinch. As Kristin Rushowy reports for the Toronto Star, nearly half of the province’s publicly funded universities are heading for the red, as 10 of 23 institutions are set to post deficits adding up to roughly $175 million.

In response to the looming crisis, universities say they’ll be forced to cut student services, including mental-health supports, which are already irresponsibly inadequate. Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop and her office have taken the classic PC line that universities will simply have to find “efficiencies” on their way to “sustainability.” That almost always means privatization and cuts. You know, bootstraps and all that. After they do, the government will perhaps consider letting them raise tuition fees and may even up their allowance.

The Ford government’s approach to funding universities is consistent with its apparent disdain for the public sector and higher education. After all, that’s where the elite come from. In the Tory mind, universities are coddled and entitled — cash-heavy waste machines that produce not a soul who can hang drywall or fix a leaky toilet. Having spent years in that system, I can confirm there is more than a little of sense of entitlement among certain cadres and plenty of snobbery, but higher education in Ontario isn’t an overfunded sinkhole filled with lazy, irredeemable blue bloods.

A recent report by the government’s own blue-ribbon panel on post-secondary education in Ontario recommended both an increase to university funding of 10 per cent and a tuition hike of 5 per cent for 2024. In short, the panel found that Ontario universities are structurally underfunded and at financial risk, which implies a corollary risk to the quality of student and staff experience and development, not to mention academic achievement.

For years, universities have been increasingly relying on international students, for whom tuition isn’t capped, to fill their coffers. Canada has welcomed hundreds of thousands of international students — over 800,000 in 2022  — and Ontario is home to the biggest share of them. On average, international-student tuition fees are more than five times higher than domestic fees.

In Ontario, international students made up roughly a quarter of post-secondary enrolments by 2019, rising from 7 per cent to 22 per cent in under a decade. Many students who come to Canada from abroad have trouble settling, paying for school, and finding affordable housing. Funding universities with more and more international students without support is cruel and unsustainable.

Looking back at it now, the Ford government’s plan for higher education reads like one designed to put universities in their place. Maybe it wasn’t half-baked after all. Indeed, from a certain angle, it looks less like a botched job than a plan to starve universities into submission, to discipline and punish.

In response to the plan and to the blue-ribbon panel’s recommendation, the Canadian Union of Public Employees called on the government to reject recommendations to outsource services and raise tuition fees and to boost public funding instead. It can see the long game playing out here, and it doesn’t like the looks of how it’d turn out.

The Council of Ontario Universities has told the government that post-secondary institutions are doing their part. The council’s head, Steve Orsini, told the Starthere’s only so much belt-tightening one can manage; he wants the government to abandon the tuition freeze and to increase funding.

Neither domestic nor foreign students can afford a tuition increase, yet universities can’t make ends meet without more funding. Ontario student funding is already the lowest in the country. That’s shabby stuff for a province that boats about world-class this and world-class that.

If the government permits universities to increase tuition, there must also be a significant increase in scholarships, grants, and OSAP funding. It really ought not to increase fees at all — and certainly not for students who can’t afford it. But first and foremost, the Ford government needs to increase per-student funding to institutions by at least the 10 per cent its own panel recommended and prepare for more increases down the road.

Whether the plan was a botched job or an undertaking to discipline universities and privatize more institutional operations, the Ford government must increase funding, say no to privatization, and resort to permitting tuition-fee increases as a last resort — and then only with a matching plan for more funding for student grants, scholarships, and loans. It’s the least that higher education deserves in Ontario, even if it’s far more than the Tories have been willing to offer so far.

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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