If You Think Education is Expensive, Try Ignorance

Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop just announced a package of $1.3 billion over 3 years in increased funding for the institutions she oversees. Premier Ford predicted it would be “fabulous.” But the headline of his own government’s news release was that the money was “to stabilize colleges and universities.”

Unstable by Design

Ontario’s colleges and universities are unstable because of the policies of the Ford Government. Domestic tuition fees were cut by 10 percent in 2018 and then frozen. The Government’s grants to colleges and universities have been flatlined. To remain financially viable, they dramatically increased enrollment of international students. But the federal government’s cap on international students will undercut this strategy. The Ford Government’s Bill 124 was intended to suppress salaries of faculty and staff, like other public sector workers, but the courts ruled that it contravened the Charter. Yes, higher education in Ontario is in need of stabilizing. But does this new funding package deliver stability?

The devil of course is in the details, and they aren’t known yet. Seventy percent of the funding package will go to a Postsecondary Education Sustainability Fund: on what basis will it dole out funding? We will find out if the government’s operating grants to colleges and universities will increase in the forthcoming budget, but I expect that this announcement represents all the new funding that there is.

Except for a 5 percent increase in tuition for out-of-province domestic students, tuition fees remain frozen. The Ford Government’s rationale is, to quote the news release, “to keep down costs for students and parents.” But it could have allowed colleges and universities to increase fees and give tuition waivers or scholarships for students from families of modest to low incomes.

Low Cost, Low Quality

One small part of the $1.3 billion, but with potentially far-reaching implications, is a $15 million Efficiency and Accountability Fund “to support third-party reviews that will identify actions institutions can take to drive long-term cost savings.” Currently per-student funding for Ontario colleges is 44 percent of the rest of Canada and for Ontario universities 57 percent of the rest of the country. So where will these long-term cost savings come from? As a former university administrator, I know the likely options will include closing some departments, increasing class sizes, not replacing retiring faculty, and substituting inexpensive teaching stream and sessional instructors for expensive research-stream faculty. Every one of these actions will degrade the quality of education. The worst is replacing research-stream faculty. They are the ones who bring the latest knowledge to the classroom. And the latest knowledge can be of immediate value to society – something demonstrated to the Ford Government by Ontario’s virologists and epidemiologists during the pandemic, but now conveniently forgotten.

Another part of the package will be The Strengthening Accountability and Student Supports Act 2024 (SASS). The accountability portion includes ministerial directors to colleges and universities to provide information to students about ancillary fees and other student costs, such as textbooks, as well as requiring institutions to help students and parents understand how tuition fees are used. It is as much an exercise in political theatre as the Get it Done Act. The SASS Act is the echo of a bad idea, namely the Ford Government’s ill-fated initiative to make ancillary fees optional that was invalidated by the courts. As a parent of students at the University of Toronto, I know that it already makes information about ancillary fees available and I expect other colleges and universities do as well.

I’m teaching a course in which there are no textbook fees because all materials are made available online at no additional cost to students. For this course, should the university say the textbook fee is zero? Or should it estimate the per-student cost of the material and show it as a reduction in the actual cost of tuition? Again, I expect that other instructors at the U of T and elsewhere do likewise.

I’m not sure what the Government expects to demonstrate in asking universities to show students and parents how tuition fees are used. Tuition fees along with government grants and other sources of revenue such as endowment income or parking fees go into the university’s general revenue (the equivalent of the government’s consolidated revenue fund) and then pay for the cost of running the university. The expected banal answer would be that tuition revenues pay for tuition, research, and overhead necessary to support those activities.

The Ford Government’s “fabulous” funding package yet again demonstrates the failure of its populist approach to higher education. It sees higher education as expensive, so it attempts to keep the cost down. What will result is a dumbed-down system of higher education. That’s the ignorance they are intent on bringing us.

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