When did the erosion of Ontario’s universities and colleges start?

Posted on November 17, 2023 in Education Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Columnists
November 17, 2023.   By Heather Mallick, Star Columnist

This funding gap is causing such hardship that eight of 23 universities, including Queen’s University and Waterloo, are running deficits.

Those who say “everything is broken” — which is true but also not — should look back to a time when things were intact and figure out what happened. Case in point: Ontario universities and colleges, whose current state is grievous. I wonder who did that.

Premier Doug Ford convened a so-called blue-ribbon panel, which just released its report on the mess.

In 2019 Ford cut tuition fees by 10 per cent and kept them frozen. At the time this had an air of being a superficially kindly thing to do.

It was destructive. Ontario’s per-student funding for universities was only 57 per cent of that in all other provinces while its colleges were at 44 per cent. Ontario is a have-not province when it comes to education, a horror show for the province that is Canada’s central engine.

This may be what Ford wants, a cull of higher education, partly because he thinks the sector spends money poorly. Take the fairly recent bloat of administrative employees compared to staff who actually assist students. Much of the teaching is left to sessional instructors — basically PhDs working on short-term contracts — rather than tenured professors who prefer to do research, a slow-moving catastrophe in the making.

The panel called for a five per cent tuition increase next year and subsequent smaller hikes depending on inflation, with “high demand” professional programs getting an extra three per cent. It is also quite reasonably recommending that per-student funding should rise 10 per cent next year, with smaller rises after that.

The funny thing is that this was not what Ford’s colleges and universities minister, Jill Dunlop, wanted to hear.

She was looking for spending cuts or as she put it, “taking the necessary steps to ensure that they are operating as efficiently as possible” before making them whole. The panel was not titled “blue-ribbon” to blow money, but to save it.

So we are at an impasse.

Stretched universities and colleges didn’t retrench. They saw a gap in the market and admitted large numbers of Indian and Chinese students who were charged huge tuition fees to obtain Canadian credentials that most hope will get them permanent residency. What if authoritarian leaders order them back home?

Those students rented apartments, a lot of them dreadful and wildly overpriced. Housing prices and rents soared (see housing, broken).

This is a simplified version of how the education sector broke slowly like elastic: bad government strategy. It puzzles me that Ford was so inept. He’s decimating health care quite efficiently.

Ford might have offered to match university and college “efficiencies,” should they mysteriously be able to find them. Universities get bad press for expensive diversity and inclusion staff providing amorphous guidance, for parenting students rather than instructing them, for going beyond their remit with excessive coddling.

Perhaps he had hoped the blue-ribbon people would use box-cutters. They did not.

To that end, Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson, has an off-putting new fundraising slogan: “Made of Grit.” I suppose it’s better than “Or Else” or “We Take Anyone” but still. TMU defines grit as “an intangible thing that drives [students] to make change, innovate and succeed in their lives and careers.”

Nonsense. I have loads of grit, learned at Ryerson and in newsrooms. Grit is the quality that makes you endure the intolerable with an enigmatic smile. That’s grit today’s students can use.


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