By Christopher Yendt
We seem to talk about a funding problem in the university realm of post-secondary education as unique to the Ontario context. While it is fairly well known, (if not universally known) that Ontario undergraduates provide the greatest contribution through their tuition dollars in comparison to students in other provinces this does not mean that the issues we face in Ontario are not present across the country.
With the increased pressure universities have faced in Ontario, particularly recently, it seems that it is all we can do in the academic world to talk about this problem as one created in the short term. While there have been murmurs and discussions with operating grants decreasing year over year it wasn’t until 2012 that we reached the boiling point, when university budgets were no longer publicly funded (Brown, 2016) but rather publicly assisted, with student tuition dollars and fees are tasked with making up the shortfall. No action stands alone so we need to cast an eye back further to try to understand how our provincial post-secondary education systems got to be the relative quagmire it is today.
In the early 1990s, the province of Ontario and Canada as a whole was rocked by a sizable economic downturn that would shift priorities at both levels of government. Ontario elected an NDP majority government in 1990 and it attempted to mitigate the effects by spurring investment into the provincial economy. The results have been disputed, but it did cause Ontario’s debt and deficit to soar. When Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives swept to power in 1995 there was little choice but to slash program funding. Two years prior the federal had hit a record high and this helped facilitate the sweep of the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives by the Chretien Liberals. Both levels of government would start reductions that would devolve much of the responsibility and funding and training to the provinces and territories, though the deferral the federal government retained its responsibility for “labour mobility across Canada, and continues to fund national youth, Aboriginal, persons with disabilities, at-risk youth, immigrants, apprenticeship and literacy programs” (Fisher et al., 2005).
From the federal government’s standpoint their reduction in financial support came through adjusting transfer agreements, thus provincial governments had to ask institutions to either make cuts or increase tuition. (Shanahan & Jones, 2007, p. 33) Unfortunately the dramatic cuts to transfer payments by the federal government forced the hand of the provinces, many of whom had no choice but to call for tuition fees to increase or be deregulated altogether. (Shanahan & Jones, 2007, p. 33) These cuts were so substantial that it is estimated between 1994/95 and 2004/05 per student funding “decreased by almost 50%” (Fisher et al., 2005).
While the federal government’s approach to provincial transfers was often changed, the 1995 federal budget served to reshape the entire agreement (Shanahan & Jones, 2007). The argument now remains split along the lines you would expect, the provincial and federal governments on one side arguing in essence that universities should operate more efficiently and reduce costs in order to balance budgets; meanwhile universities argue that these governments have set them up to fail with various efficiency targets and tuition freezes that has only made their financial situation more dire. All the while, students are protesting the rising cost of education as they are caught in the middle.
At what point can we come to agreement that the solutions being proposed are bandages to a broken system? We seem vested in developing a fix to the problem as though it is only a few years old when in fact it has been decades in the making. It is easy to see that without a solution this slide will bring our society back to the point where only the wealthy can afford a university education. A solution will need to involve participants at all levels, it will need government recognition that universities and colleges need more financial support, but also that they must cooperate more directly to reduce costs. It means that faculty overall need to be paid less, an often unpopular opinion, but the fact remains that the 66% of the operating budget at Brock goes to salaries/wage/benefits and 65% of that is on Faculty/Teaching Staff, making up 43% of the overall budget (Brock University Budget Report, 2015). Beyond this there does not seem to be a concrete solution, which is likely why the situation remains such a problem. It seems that no one has any money, and when they do there are always other priorities.
Brock University, Budget Report 2015-16). (2015). St. Catharines, Niagara Region, ON: Brock University. https://brocku.ca/webfm_send/36390
Brown, L. (2016, Jan 13). Student group calls for tuition freeze to combat ‘death of public universities’. The Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2016/01/13/student-group-calls-for- tuition-freeze-to-combat-death-of-public-universities.html
Fisher, D., Rubenson, K., Clift, R., MacIvor, M., Meredith, J., Shanahan, T., Jones, G., Trottier, C., & Bernatchez, J. (2005). Canadian federal policy and post secondary education. New York, NY: Alliance for International Higher Education Policy Studies.
Shanahan, T., & Jones, G. A. (2007). Shifting roles and approaches: Government coordination of post-secondary education in Canada, 1995-2006. Higher Education Research and Development, 26(1), 31-43.
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