What will be the fate of Ontario universities under a Ford Government? Here is my best guess.
The Conservatives have not yet produced a detailed platform. We know that they want to balance the budget and do it by cutting spending. Ford talks about “finding efficiencies.” This based on the dubious assumption that there is rampant waste in the public sector and cutting out the waste will be all that is necessary to balance the budget. As was the case during the Ford mayoralty in Toronto, finding efficiencies will result in cuts to provincial government programs.
Universities are not a priority for Doug Ford. This message comes out loud and clear in his book Ford Nation. He tells us that he “didn’t have the marks for university” and that when he went to Humber College he was “bored silly in the lectures.” He quit after a month and went to work for daddy, an option available to very few Ontarians.
He also tells us “whenever I give speeches to high school students, I like to encourage them to think outside of going to university. Don’t get me wrong – university is a critical experience for those who can do it. But that’s not everybody. … These days, good carpenters can make $100,000 a year. So I explain to high school audiences that not everybody needs to be an academic.”
In Ford’s view, universities are an elite institution, the sole function of which is to produce academics. I find this view so objectionable because it fails to understand the true functions of the university. At the very least, these include equipping students with a range of intellectual skills essential for success in a global information economy and producing new knowledge to help our society succeed. Students go to university to learn a trade, like medicine, law, engineering, architecture, or teaching. They go to university to learn how to think. They go to university to pursue an intellectual passion or curiosity. All of these are important reasons to go to university that Doug Ford fails to recognize.
A populist government, as Ford defines it, will not treat universities well. Cuts to provincial government grants will be the result. But we are unlikely to find out with any specificity during the election campaign, how severe those cuts will be.
Let me contrast this with Mike Harris’s approach, which I remember well. During the 1995 election campaign I went to a forum sponsored by the Toronto region of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada at which Harris spoke. I asked him what the implications of the Common Sense Revolution would be for the universities. His answer was straight-forward and precise: “it’s in the book.” The Common Sense Revolution proposed a cut of $400 million in university funding, a considerable sum at that time. After the Conservatives were elected, I remember Rob Prichard, then President of the University of Toronto, arguing forcefully that the government should cut not a penny more than $400 million. And the Harris Government didn’t.
How should we in the universities react to the situation now? I am sure there are those who will look at the public opinion polls, in which the Conservatives currently have a large lead, and conclude that the best thing to do is keep quiet and not antagonize the next premier. Then when Ford takes office we can lobby his Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, who hopefully will be more sympathetic to the universities’ mission, to limit the damage. We can also hope that the public servants in the department will also make a case for the universities.
The second alternative is to vigorously oppose Ford now, so that he doesn’t become premier. The official election campaign hasn’t yet begun, and a month is a long time in politics. That’s what I’ll be doing. I encourage my readers who believe in the importance of the universities’ mission – which includes instruction, research, and service to society – to do likewise.