V-c: Doug Ford will ‘come after higher education’ in Ontario

Canadian university leader said he would be ‘worried’ if he were at an institution in the province 

October 31, 2018
doug-ford-protesters
Source: Getty

A senior Canadian university leader has predicted that Ontario’s new populist government will “come after the sector of postsecondary education”.

Philip Steenkamp, vice-president of external relations at the University of British Columbia and incoming vice-chancellor at Royal Roads University, said that Canada had historically been relatively “insulated” from debates about the value of higher education, compared with the US and the UK.

However, he admitted, that started to change in some part of the country with the recent elections of right-wing businessmen Doug Ford, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, and François Legault, head of the Coalition Avenir Québec, as premiers of the respective provinces.

In September, the Ontario government confirmed that it was implementing a policy tying university funding to free speech. Commenting before the province’s recent announcement that it had cancelled funding for three planned satellite campuses in the Toronto region, Dr Steenkamp predicted that the new government would “come after the sector of postsecondary education”.

When asked whether he would be worried if he were about to lead a university in Ontario, instead of British Columbia, he said: “I would be. I know many of the university presidents there, and they are worried.

“I think everybody is keeping their heads down and hoping that nothing too dramatic is going to happen.”

Dr Steenkamp, who was a Liberal deputy minister of training, colleges and universities in Ontario from 2006 to 2008, said that it was “hard to see” how further and higher education would not be targeted, given that Mr Ford was elected on a campaign of significant tax cuts. One of his signature promises was to drop the price of a beer to a dollar while he pledged to find C$6 billion (£3.5 billion) in savings without cutting jobs.

“In Canadian political culture, you always ring-fence healthcare – even for the far right, it is very difficult to touch it,” Dr Steenkamp said. “Once you do that, given that we have got public healthcare, you have locked up a huge proportion of the budget, and you’ve got very little flexibility.”

He added that primary and secondary education was also generally ring-fenced, meaning that further and higher education, where there is usually “quite a bit of money”, was vulnerable.

“When times get tight and governments are looking for cash, people don’t necessarily see the political return on investment in post-secondary education. You need visionary leaders who understand the value of it and not just the politics,” he said.

However, Dr Steenkamp did not think that Canada’s new wave of populism would spread across the country.

“British Columbia has just elected a social democratic government that understands the value of education,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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