Time for Ford to act on Ontario’s reliance on international students for post-secondary funding 

Posted on August 30, 2023 in Education Delivery System

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NationalPost.com – opinion
Aug 24, 2023.   Randall Denley

The government’s failure to properly fund post-secondary is the root cause of the burgeoning international student population and the strain it puts on housing 

A light bulb has finally come on in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Dim though that bulb may be, it has sufficient power to illuminate a glaring weakness in how Ontario funds post-secondary education.

Sean Fraser, the new federal housing minister, offered the opinion this week that the 807,260 international students in Canada are putting pressure on the Canadian housing market. That’s not terribly surprising, since the number of international students has more than doubled since the Liberals took power. It’s also a problem that Fraser failed to address when he was immigration minister.

While it’s gratifying to see the federal Liberals tentatively identifying a link between the number of people flowing into the country and the shortage of housing, it’s Ontario Premier Doug Ford who really has to wake up.

Ford talks non-stop about the housing crisis and is willing to do anything to build more housing, but his own government’s policies have made the problem worse. Its failure to properly fund post-secondary is the root cause of the burgeoning international student population in Ontario, where about half the national total resides.

This is a problem Ford inherited, then made worse. Under the previous Liberal government tuition fees rose steadily as universities scrambled to cover costs not met by provincial funding. When first elected, Ford cut tuition fees by 10 per cent and his government has frozen them ever since.

That was great for students, not so great for universities and colleges. To make up the public funding shortfall, universities and colleges turned increasingly to international students, who pay much higher fees than Canadians, up to four times as much.

In effect, the Ford government and the universities and colleges reached a tacit agreement. The post-secondary institutions would stop fussing about underfunding in exchange for the government supporting an unlimited flow of international students.

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has highlighted the overreliance on international student fees in two reports. In December 2021, Lysyk found that Ontario’s colleges received 68 per cent of their tuition fees from international students. That’s what happens when a Canadian student pays $3,228 and an international student $14,306 for the same education. In 2022, she determined that international students, about 14 per cent of the student body, were paying 45 per cent of university tuition fees.

Some differential for international students is justified, but only enough to make up what the province covers for homegrown students. Ontario’s fees are exorbitant.

In effect, Ontario has turned its post-secondary sector into an international training business. As a result, the sector has expanded in its search for revenue, flooding the province with students who require housing.

Despite the obvious pressure this creates on housing, the Ontario government has been enthusiastic about the burgeoning Ontario student population. Not only do the international students subsidize the education of students from Ontario, they provide a source of cheap labour while they study here. Even better, the government hopes that many of them will stay in Ontario after they graduate.

Ford is caught between conflicting problems. There is a labour shortage and immigration seems like an obvious way to solve it, but a larger population increases demand for housing and health care beyond the province’s capacity to provide it. Ford has struggled to connect those two dots, championing population growth while pretending the province can handle it.

Whatever the perceived benefits, Ontario’s heavy reliance on international students’ tuition dollars to support its colleges and universities is unwise, a point made compellingly in an analysis by the Canadian Federation of Students.

It is also a problem that will be expensive to fix. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations says that provincial funding covers only 33 per cent of university costs. Bringing Ontario per-student funding up to the average of the rest of Canada would cost $12.9 billion over five years, the professors estimate. For context, Ontario’s base program spending for the entire post-secondary sector this year is $12.1 billion.

Ontario has taken one small step toward rationality. Earlier this year, it appointed a “blue-ribbon panel” of academic and business leaders to provide the government with advice on making the post-secondary sector financially stable. Raising government support and cutting reliance on international students would be two obvious recommendations. The panel is expected to report within the next four weeks.

The Ontario government is certainly not going to stop the flow of international students, nor should it. What it needs to do is reduce the system’s reliance on those students’ fees by reducing their numbers and making up the difference itself. That would help both the housing market and the stability of post-secondary education.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa journalist, author and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com


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