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Margin Notes

More funding for universities – reasonable, but is it realistic?

I realize associations that lobby for the PSE sector must ask for more money. But I think the real challenge will be to guard the funding that exists now.


The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations released a report yesterday (Sept. 29) which concludes that the economic downturn highlights the fundamental problems with how the province funds higher education (for the full report, click here).

The press release accompanying the report puts it this way:

The negative effects of the recession are due to policy changes that began in the mid-1990s. After huge cuts to public university funding, institutions were forced to turn to private sources of income such as endowment funds and higher tuition fees. Now, 14 years later, the global financial crisis has significantly reduced the value of endowment funds and pension plans, hurting university revenue. Moreover, record student unemployment has made it even harder for students to pay for Ontario’s already expensive tuition fees. The Government of Ontario’s current tuition policy will allow fees to increase by an average of five per cent in the 2009-10 school year.

The OCUFA solution: greater public funding of the university system, of course. This is a reasonable response, but is it realistic?

I take no issue with the OCUFA analysis. Tuition fees do continue to climb and – depending on how you measure it – now represent 42 percent to 58 percent of university operating revenue in Ontario (the lower percentage is from Table 4 of the CAUT Education Review released in September, while the higher percentage is from the new OCUFA report, citing Statistics Canada data). Either way, it’s far more than the roughly 25 percent of a couple of decades ago.

However, the Ontario government could counter, equally reasonably, that it has been no slouch in terms of funding universities. According to the government, it has increased operating grants to universities and colleges by $1.7 billion, or about 63 per cent, since 2002-03 (see the “quick fact” here). Of course, the catch is that university enrolment climbed significantly as well during that time, meaning that per-student funding has remained stagnant at best.

But the bigger catch here, and it is relevant for postsecondary education across the country, is that provincial governments are massively in debt. The latest forecast for Ontario is a deficit of $18.5 billion in 2009-10 alone.

I realize associations that lobby for the postsecondary education sector must put up the good fight, and part of that fight is to ask for more money. But I think the real challenge will be to guard the funding that exists now (I should stress that this is my own personal opinion and not necessarily that of my employer, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada). Remember that the B.C. government cut funding to postsecondary education last year, while the Alberta government said just yesterday it wouldn’t rule out cuts to postsecondary education funding.

This issue will loom even larger as the Baby Boomers age and governments feel the pressure to direct more funding to the long-term care of seniors. This may not be the message university faculty want to hear, but I think it’s realistic.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / September 30, 2009 at 17:16

    so despite the fact that yesterday you were tweeting about the contribution of universities to the economy…

    And then there is the fact that baby boomers didn’t pay much at all for their education. And now they want us to pay for their long term care. All laudable. But why is it okay for them to have a free/cheap education and not the current generation.

    The reason governments are in debt is because they refuse to raise taxes. There is a good case to be made for paying for things like education and long term care for the elderly collectively rather than individually. Both benefit all of us regardless of whether we use the service individually (see contribution of higher ed to economy). And someone should have the balls to argue that it is worth raising taxes for.

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