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Margin Notes

The death of Canada’s education advantage

Business professor Roger Martin says Canada's universities are still feeling the effects of the drastic cuts to education spending of the 1990s.


University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, takes us back to the ugly days of the 1990s (for universities, at least) in an article in the November issue of Walrus magazine, with the provocative title, “Who Killed Canada’s Education Advantage?”

The answer: parsimonious federal Finance Minister Paul Martin for his cuts to transfer payments, abetted by Ontario Premier Mike Harris for bludgeoning provincial funding for postsecondary education.

He writes:

At the time Harris became premier, Ontario had still not recovered from the deep deficits created during the recession. Having pledged to leave health care alone, he turned instead to education, which was already suffering from a per capita spending decrease during [Bob] Rae’s tenure. In Harris’s first two years, education expenditures dipped $1 billion, or 5 percent. The centrepiece of this program was a 14.3 percent cut in funding for Ontario universities. … Across Canada, other premiers also dealt with reduced federal transfer payments by targeting education spending, though not to the draconian extent Ontario did.

For those in academe who lived through those years, this will be familiar territory, but the article is still an informative and detailed accounting of the damage done.

What is most interesting about the piece, for me, is Professor Martin’s argument that even though funding for universities has increased at a reasonable clip over the past 10 years, Canada has not even remotely recovered the commanding advantage it had relative to the U.S. before the 1990s in terms of PSE support.

This leads to his best line: “We now find ourselves in the position of a cross-country runner who has lost visual contact with the runner ahead, and so has no idea how fast to run in order to catch up.”

This is backed up by a quote from McGill University Principal Munroe-Blum: “We cannot just measure ourselves against what we did twenty years ago. … Other nations, not just the United States, are devoting increasing resources to their education systems, well aware that the road to prosperity runs via knowledge and effective preparation and talent.”

Professor Martin’s conclusion: it will take an increased annual education expenditure of over $21 billion across all levels of government in Canada — and $10 billion in Ontario alone — to return to the per capita spending position we enjoyed relative to the U.S. in 1995. Will our governments step up to the challenge?

On a related note: the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations just released a study yesterday which concludes the province lags behind its peers in Canada and the U.S. in terms of the student-to-faculty ratio and urgently needs to hire more faculty to maintain the quality of higher education.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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