Doug Ford’s War on the Universities

If you look at the Ford Government’s policies towards Ontario universities and connect the dots, the inescapable conclusion is that it has declared war. It wants to reshape the universities to conform to a radical vision, and it is trying to use funding cuts, incentives, and regulations to achieve it. That vision is a university system that focuses on training workers, does it cheaply, and is politically quiescent. The vision gives short shrift to the quality of education and to research.

Consider how recent initiatives contribute to the vision. A 10 percent tuition cut and 1 percent annual base budget cuts for the next four years are intended to reduce revenue and force down costs, but they will also impair quality. The attack on so-called “double-dipping” by faculty receiving both pensions and salaries, in addition to being an exercise in scapegoating, ignores the fact that the federal Income Tax Act requires workers to start collecting their pension at age 71 whether or not they are still employed. The government is trying to force older faculty members to retire, but any savings will likely be used to meet budget cuts, rather than the ostensible goal of hiring younger faculty. Finally, making ancillary fees optional for students is intended to cripple student organizations critical of the government such as student government and newspapers.

The key reform is the transformational initiative to increase the proportion of outcome-based funding for universities from the current level of just over 1 percent to 60 percent by 2024-25. The funding is to depend on 10 not-yet-finalized metrics, though the budget says they will reflect the “government’s priorities in skills and job outcomes, and economic and community impact” and that, as a result, “university programming will be better aligned with labour market demands.” Universities will have some flexibility to weight the metrics based on their own goals but, given the government’s focus on the labour market, it is unclear to what extent universities will be able to make research a priority.

The budget speaks of the government negotiating bilateral funding agreements with each university, but the balance of power in the negotiations is firmly on the government’s side. Given the amount of money involved, no university can afford to walk away from the bargaining table. They will have to accept the government’s final offer.

Another aspect of the Ford Government’s program that is detrimental to universities is its rejection of evidence-based policy making. Here, too, connecting the dots provides a clear picture. It includes the firing of Ontario’s Chief Scientific Officer (a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering) the day after the Government took office; the subsequent termination of the basic income experiment before it was completed; and now the ending of grants to think tanks, many of which are university-based, leading to their being shuttered. Choking off the sources of knowledge to address societal challenges leads to misguided policies.

How can we expect the relationship between the Ford Government and the universities to evolve over the next three years?

University administrations will keep calm and carry on, quietly attempting to persuade the bureaucracy to write regulations and make agreements that minimize disruption and preserve autonomy. They do not want to see research undermined because it is essential to the mission and global standing of any university.

The premier is a wild card. In his autobiography he admits that he did not have the marks in high school to attend university and went to Humber College, where he was “bored silly in the lectures” and quit after a month. He has no familiarity with universities. His brand of populism involves attacking elites, and he could readily turn on the universities.

If the government’s policies undermine research at Ontario universities, some of the strongest researchers will leave for other places. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration (2011 to 2019) froze tuition, cut university funding, and changed the state university’s mission statement from emphasizing “the search for truth” to “meet[ing] the state’s workforce needs.” Faculty departures irreparably damaged the university’s reputation.

Though Ontario universities will officially be politically neutral, if people who study and work there feel they are under attack, they will mobilize and join the government’s political opposition. For example, the government’s attempt to rewrite compensation policy for faculty members entitled to both salaries and pensions will be challenged in court. The government will achieve cost reductions and may increase the emphasis on job training, but it shouldn’t expect political tranquility.

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