The Ford government can’t leave Ontario universities in this financial mess

Posted on March 10, 2021 in Education Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial

Getting research grants to study wildlife in Algonquin Park, permafrost near Hudson Bay or homelessness in northwestern Ontario can’t be easy for professors and graduate students in the first place. To then find out that those funds have been misappropriated by their university to pay its own bills is a crushing betrayal.

Laurentian University applied for credit protection last month and staff and students have learned that the university co-mingled research grants with general revenues. And the Sudbury institution was so broke it used that research money to pay salaries and keep the lights on.

Laurentian has been in financial trouble for years and COVID-19 seems to have finally tipped it over the edge. But it’s not the only Ontario university to be facing financial difficulties and those problems don’t all come down to the pandemic.

So the Ford government cannot afford to act as though Laurentian University is an isolated case, or think this crisis will pass on its own once life gets back to normal. Neither is true.

The crisis at Laurentian is the most visible manifestation of a longstanding structural and funding crisis that has simply been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Increased costs and reduced revenues due to COVID has left Ontario universities scrambling to fill a billion-dollar hole. Institutions have found half of that through one-time savings and now there’s an “urgent need” for the province to come through with the remaining $500 million, according to the Council of Ontario Universities.

The Ford government should step in to fill that gap as it has for so many other COVID-19 costs. And once the immediate crisis is adverted it should turn its attention to addressing broader issues so universities and colleges can be put on a more solid financial footing for the future.

Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano has said the government will support institutions that are struggling due to the pandemic. But he’s provided few details and no assurance that the government understands that the problems universities face go well beyond COVID.

Indeed this government has made things worse, not better, for universities and colleges. In 2019, it cut tuition by 10 per cent and then froze it for two years.

The government claimed it was “putting more money back in the pockets of students.” In fact, few students were much better off and a great many students along with all of Ontario’s universities and colleges were decidedly worse off.

At the same time, the government cut free tuition for students from lower-income families, made it tougher for students to qualify for grants through the province’s financial aid system, and cut back the entire aid program.

The government also refused to boost funding to institutions to compensate for the $440 million they lost with the tuition cut.

When Laurentian’s president rattled off the many financial challenges that led the university to apply for credit protection the government’s tuition cut was mentioned even before COVID.

The Ford government helped create the funding crisis universities are facing and it needs to do its part to fix it. The provincial budget later this month is the time to do that.

It would be nice to think no other university will stoop to improperly using research funds to pay its day-to-day expenses. And, so far, it does seem that no other university is in quite the dire financial straits that Laurentian is in.

But the Ford government needs to help with pandemic costs and start the conversation about longterm sustainability to make sure that remains the case.

It will take provincial action to make sure the crisis at Laurentian is a one-off, not the tip of the iceberg.

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