How Did We Get Here? A Brief History on PSE Funding over the last Two Decades


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.

Brown, L. (2016, Jan 13). Student group calls for tuition freeze to combat ‘death of public universities’. The Star. Retrieved from            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.

Additional Articles of Interest



8 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here? A Brief History on PSE Funding over the last Two Decades

  1. Thanks for breaking this down for us Chris.
    I think that it is a lot easier in most circumstances to treat the symptoms of a problem, rather than fix the problem itself for a few reasons. Small changes to the current system seem manageable and efficient. Typically, addressing the symptoms of a greater problem, make us feel like we have accomplished something, and cause us to feel motivated for “something better”, without really having taken any risks. Realistically, without addressing the root of a problem, symptoms may change, and could even be addressed, but the crux of problem will never go away. When the cause of a problem is acknowledged, it usually is not as easy to fix (otherwise the problem wouldn’t still exist). When it comes to the resolution of major problems, we are required to take chances, risk change and take the road less travelled. Just remember, if it was easy it would have been done already. When it comes to fixing real problems, in our lives, in our workplaces, or in our society, we mustn’t try just to bandage the symptoms of our our problems, even though this does seem more manageable, but rather we must be brave and address the root of the difficulty if we ever expect to see sustainable change in the future.

    • Excellent point Genevieve! I think we often use ‘little changes/solutions’ to distract from the bigger problem, and seem to almost cross our fingers in the hope that this will make the difference we need to have happen.

    • Great question! And I would be foolish to say I have the answer, but I envision the answer to stem (at least in the most basic way) from a discussion like the Brock University Senate had when they undertook a Senate based SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). The province needs to undertake a SWOT analysis for PSE in Ontario, and let that begin the conversation of where do we go.

    • I’m not sure if this is already in place on the faculty side of the university payroll but what about a salary cap? It seems to me that there must be an amount of money that a person could earn that wouldn’t need to be increased annually because it was already quite sufficient. With the recent talk of instituting a guaranteed minimum income in this province, I’d be curious about what instituting a maximum might generate in terms of savings for non-profit institutions.

  2. Chris, you provided a great timeline to demonstrate how the problem of funding in PSE in Ontario began and how we find ourselves in the financial funding crisis today. What really resonated with me was the point you made about how this issue does not cease to exist across the country–not only isolated to our province of Ontario. Throughout your research, did you find student participation/ testimonials of what their thoughts, actions, solutions were to these funding issues? I ask this because Federal and Provincial leaders do not elect themselves. If we narrow in on the people that are most affected by these funding issues, they are the undergraduate student population, but not exclusive to Post-Graduate student bodies that are eligible and have the right to vote. Students of Quebec did not agree with the tuition increase, therefore, they protested–this was their way of providing not only a solution but a discussion amongst university students, faculty, administration, and the general public about funding issues. What is Ontario doing? While in your conclusion you indicated that reviewing the high wages of faulty members as financial site to be re-considered it would be interesting to see what the voices and actions of undergraduate/graduate students have provided as a solution–as they are paying and voting members of the province.

    • Lena you have several great questions here, and I will do my best to answer them with the information I have. Because Ontario has by far and away the highest tuition levels in Canada this means that students in other provinces have somewhat less of a burden or are concerned less with rising rates. This coupled with the fact that Ontario has 23 Universities out of 66 in Canada means that conversations around PSE and cost tend to be dominated by our province. In terms of unrest in Quebec this tends to stem from a culture of greater civic engagement then we have in other provinces, specifically Ontario (In Ontario our voter turnout for the last 15 years is around 52% whereas in Quebec it is 72% for the same period). There are a litany of reasons for this, but one major one is the political engagement that begins at a young age and doesn’t cease, and this translates to demonstrations/protests when they feel as though their voices are not being heard. Finally, in terms of voices and actions OUSA (Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance) has called for a Tuition freeze starting in 2017 and running until 2021. CFS (Canadian Federation of Students), and the provincial branch have called for the elimination of tuition altogether. The OGSA (Ontario Graduate Students Alliance) formed in 2012 has begun to look at lobbying for a return of post-residency fees. The problem with all of these stances is that they do no address the underlying problems, they are surface issues and none will solve the root causes, merely delay the discussions that need to take place about a vision for PSE in Ontario.

  3. Chris, this is an interesting topic and you have done a great job of breaking it down for us! You raise an excellent point in your concluding paragraph when you state that “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.” Clearly this is an issue that a quick-fix solution cannot adequately address or even hope to resolve, but I’m not sure what the next step is either. I like your suggestion of conducting a SWOT analysis (something I think I’ve only ever heard of since meeting you!), but can it be done on such a broad scale of looking at PSE in general in Ontario? Would the analysis ring true for each individual PSE institution in Ontario? These aren’t necessarily questions that I think you have answers to, but just ones that I was considering while reading.

    It might be interesting to consider the latest developments (as I’m sure you already have) with Kathleen Wynne and the concept of “free” PSE for students from low-income families. I am still reading about the proposed grant and how it would be provided, so I do not yet have an informed opinion on the issue, but I think it is one development that would work well with your topic.

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