In late April, the University of Guelph announced it was pausing intake on 16 programs — a mix of humanities and science undergraduate and graduate offerings. While universities adjust their course calendars all the time, the change affects 360 incoming students and has cut four of U of Guelph’s five physics programs. Two of those programs had more women enrolled than is typical in the discipline, according to a media report.
It may be an indication of what’s to come in Ontario, where an ongoing domestic tuition freeze, stagnant operational and per-student funding, the start of performance-based funding and competition from degree-granting colleges has made balancing the books a challenge for many universities.
“Things are really dire and I think what happened at Guelph is not surprising,” said Sue Wurtele, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). “We’re going to see more of this if we don’t get a solid commitment from government.”
U of Guelph wrote in a public statement that enrolment had been suspended primarily in programs with low or declining enrolment and reiterated in an email to University Affairs that the changes were the result of an extensive review “to ensure that resources are dedicated to areas that are in-demand, innovative and strategically important.”
Kevin Wamsley, president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University, argued that program cuts should be customary, and is a separate activity from program rationalization to address funding shortfalls. “A university, whether it’s in excellent financial position or poor financial position, should always be considering its academic offerings,” he said. “We always seem to be adding new programs to interest students,” and thinks it make sense to sometimes trim back as well.
Nipissing was one of four universities included in the 2022 report on financial management in Ontario universities prepared by the province’s auditor general as it had posted losses in recent years and was drawing down on its assets. Among its findings, the report recommended that the audited universities regularly assess the profitability of their academic programs and identify those that might be reduced or restructured to maintain financial sustainability. Dr. Wamsley said his institution is making changes — some as a result of the report, others it had already put in place — related to its programs and financial reporting.
Still, the financial situation for Ontario universities has become increasingly serious, he said: “It’s an issue of the increasing costs of providing a high-quality education, and not having the revenues to match those increasing costs.” Universities across the province have different financial realities, he added, and the one-size-fits-all approach to postsecondary funding in the province works against smaller northern institutions such as his.
Provincial panel appointed on financial sustainability
Postsecondary institutions of all sizes are feeling the crunch, with government funding providing just 21.4 per cent of revenues in Ontario as of 2020-21, according to Statistics Canada, while the national average is 32.5 per cent. This leaves universities increasingly reliant on tuition fees, but even those were trimmed by 10 per cent for domestic students in 2019, and have been frozen ever since. In 2022, OCUFA unsuccessfully called for the government to boost per-student funding by $12.9 billion over five years to get it to the national average and maintain education quality in the province.
In its public statement, U of Guelph said that its assessment resulting in the program suspensions was focused on “those programs that may no longer be of interest to students or meet the needs of industry, government or civil society at large.”
Dr. Wurtele said tight finances will increasingly force Ontario universities to adapt their approach to education. “What we’re seeing is a full-scale shift away from a system in which universities used to provide a baseline training on how to think and solve problems and towards training for the economic needs of today, ignoring the needs of tomorrow,” she said. That change includes working more with industry through research and teaching partnerships, more microcredentials – which are often responsive to labour market demands – continued pursuit of high fee-paying international students, and cutting programs that don’t align with the shift, she said.
In March, the province struck a blue-ribbon panel to look at how “to improve the financial sustainability of the postsecondary sector, to support colleges and universities in developing a skilled workforce, and to promote economic growth and innovation.” It’s expected to deliver its recommendations this summer. However, Dr. Wurtele worries that the panel is too narrow in scope and does not include anyone currently working or learning at a university.
Dr. Wamsley, meanwhile, hopes the panel will trigger a more collaborative approach to addressing the financial concerns of Ontario universities, preventing postsecondary schools from following Laurentian University into insolvency, and avoiding the large-scale cutting of programs. “We’ve got to come to the table together and work this out. The provincial government, with all of its economic development policies, needs us, because we’re the ones who are going to create a high-quality workforce.”