Ontario funding boost ‘is interim relief only’ for universities

Ford government offers C$1.3 billion increase for higher education over three years, well short of levels its own expert panel suggested

February 27, 2024
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The government of Ontario announced C$1.3 billion (£760 million) in new higher education funding over the next three years while maintaining a freeze on tuition fees, falling short of the relief that its own expert panel described as necessary for Canada’s most populous province.

“We’re making historic investments to stabilise colleges and universities,” Jill Dunlop, the minister of colleges and universities for the province’s ruling Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, said in outlining the plan.

The announcement comes three months after a panel of academic and business leaders assembled by the provincial government said that its extended tuition fee freeze and low levels of financial support were starting to pose a “significant threat” to the sector’s financial health.

That panel – chaired by Alan Harrison, a former provost at Queen’s University – had declared in its report in November that the province needed to give the sector at least an additional C$2.5 billion over three years, with C$1.9 billion specifically for universities.

The Council of Ontario Universities, a coalition of 20 public institutions, said the C$1.3 billion investment outlined by Ms Dunlop would be helpful, but called on the government to treat it as “interim financial relief” while it develops “a longer-term financial sustainability package”.

The higher education sector has long been chafing under Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, who took office in 2018 and cut fees the following year by 10 per cent, and has kept them there ever since.

Meanwhile, the number of Ontario high-school students applying to universities in the province has increased by more than 11 per cent since 2020 and is projected to grow further, with at least 10 Ontario universities running annual deficits exceeding C$175 million and getting worse, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) said. The province’s universities receive the lowest per-student funding in the country at 57 per cent of the national average, the council said.

The crisis is only expected to get worse, the council said, given that the federal government had just announced sharp cutbacks in the enrolment of international students, whose higher tuition fees have become essential for public institutions to stay solvent. The Trudeau government plans to make its heaviest visa cuts in Ontario, where it has described an especially serious problem of institutions abusing visa rights to attract foreigners interested in work and residency.

Ms Dunlop said the tuition freeze was especially important as a means “to keep costs down for students and parents”, and more than C$200 million of the provincial funding boost would be designated for institutions “with the greatest need”.

But any such benefit was being overtaken by the growing institutional deficits and rising student demand, the COU said. “As a result,” it added, “more and more Ontario high school students will face greater barriers in enrolling in the programme of their choice.”


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