Doug Ford hasn’t said a lot about universities, but what he has said should set off alarms. What he did say (reported on May 8 in The Globe and Mail) is that his government would police free speech on Ontario campuses.
Ford’s dog whistle here is to his base, who apparently believe that universities are dominated by leftists who prevent the expression of opposing views (libertarian, alt-right). Republicans in the US in recent years have become critical of universities, and it is likely that this belief is a key factor. The latest Pew Research Center study (2017) finds that 58 percent of Republicans now believe that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country, a sharp increase from 38 percent 2 years ago. In contrast, 72 percent of Democrats have a positive assessment of post-secondary institutions.
Public opinion in Canada closely mirrors the Democrats’ view, not the Republicans. A 2017 study by Abacus Data found that 78 % of Canadians have a positive feeling towards universities, as opposed to only 3 % who have negative views. Zeroing in on Ford’s dog whistle, 68 % of Canadians think our universities are open-minded (as opposed to 32 percent, who think they are closed-minded). Looking at university research, 90 % think research on controlling climate change is important or very important and 83 % think research on bridging differences and encouraging peace and understanding among diverse groups in society is important or very important. I cite these two areas because they are ones that the Ontario PC’s likely wouldn’t have much enthusiasm about.
Let’s turn to funding. Reflective of Republican sentiment about universities, the Tax Reform Act that cut taxes in so many areas nevertheless imposed a new tax of 1.4 % on endowment income for private universities with assets of over $500,000 per student. This tax will raise only $200 million per year – rounding error – but is an exercise in symbolic politics.
Ford has said nothing about university funding. But he has promised major tax cuts of $20 billion and $6 billion in new spending over 4 years (both according to Inside Queen’s Park). Oh yes, and balance the budget too.
Something’s gotta give. Given Ford’s personal negativity towards higher education (see my post of May 2) and his dog whistle politics on higher education, my fear is that universities will be one of the things that will give – a lot.
Ford’s attitudes on universities are out-of-step with those of a strong majority of Canadians, as the Abacus Data poll shows. But that is unlikely to stop him from taking an axe to the universities. Only the voters can stop him.