Ontario Universities Face Financial Challenges Amid Funding Freeze and Calls for Efficiency

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The province’s freeze on per-student funding to universities and colleges, the Ford government’s 2019 cut and subsequent freeze of tuition fees, plus the impact of inflation have combined to put the financial sustainability of Ontario's post-secondary institutions at 'serious risk,' says the panel report. (John Last/CBC)

A recent report commissioned by Premier Doug Ford’s government has revealed a significant financial crisis looming over Ontario’s universities, with the province’s post-secondary sector at “serious risk” due to ongoing funding challenges. According to CBC News, the expert panel appointed by the government has highlighted the impact of the province’s prolonged freeze on per-student funding, the 2019 elimination of a free tuition program, and rising inflation rates.

Government’s Role in the Crisis

The panel’s findings underscore the provincial government’s substantial role in the financial strain experienced by the universities. This includes the Ford government’s decision to scrap the subsidy for low- and middle-income students’ free tuition while labeling it as a tuition cut. “As time goes on, this situation is ever more likely to pose a significant threat to the financial sustainability of a major part of the province’s post-secondary sector,” the panel warned.

Recommendations and Government Response

In response to these challenges, the panel recommended a five per cent tuition hike and a 10 per cent increase in government funding. However, the Ford government, as noted by Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop, insists on increased efficiencies in universities and colleges before considering any funding hike. “Before agreeing to any tuition increases, we need to ensure that colleges and universities are operating as efficiently as possible,” Dunlop stated.

The expert panel’s report says Ontario’s per-student funding to universities is 57 per cent of the average funding provided by all other provinces. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Funding Discrepancies and Efficiency Debate

Ontario currently provides significantly less funding per student compared to other provinces, amounting to only 57% of the national average. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates noted, “Ontario is a long, long way below what’s being spent in the rest of the provinces.”

University officials, including University of Toronto president Meric Gertler and University of Waterloo vice-president James Rush, echoed the sentiment that efficiencies could only contribute to a small part of the solution. “We have been in pursuit of efficiencies for many years in a number of ways,” Gertler commented on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. “I think we can find more, but it would only be a small part of the solution.”

The Impact on Universities

The combined effect of the funding freeze and tuition cuts has been profound. Universities like the University of Waterloo now face significant deficits, and others, like Nipissing University, have had to make substantial staff reductions. The financial strain is also causing Ontario’s universities to increasingly rely on international student tuition, which is significantly higher than domestic rates.

Silence from Other Universities

Many universities, including Queen’s, McMaster, Toronto Metropolitan, and York, have been reluctant or unable to comment on the funding crisis, further highlighting the issue’s sensitivity and complexity.