Tax revenue, not tuition, is still the most effective way to fund Ontario's 22 universities, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations told a blue-ribbon panel looking at the future of post-secondary education in Ontario.
Given the benefits that society at large receives on its investment in post-secondary education, the confederation has questioned the fairness of placing an increasing share of the costs on students.
University tuitions in Ontario rose 20 per cent this fall and now cover 36 per cent of the cost of an undergraduate degree. The 1996-97 increase follows tuition hikes of 10 per cent in each of the previous three years. Tuition has been expected to make up for the shortfalls in provincial funding, but many educators fear the higher fees are becoming too much of a financial burden for students and their families.
"There is a threshold beyond which the barriers of cost prevent people from coming to university," says Michael Piva, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). "I believe that threshold has been reached and we're beginning to see serious consequences."
The confederation is one of 200 groups or individuals that presented briefs to the five-member government-appointed panel. The panel, chaired by David Smith, retired principal of Queen's University, visited 10 Ontario cities this fall to hear what people had to say about their universities. The panel -- Fred Gorbet, senior vice-president of operational services for ManuLife Financial; Catherine Henderson, president of Centennial College; Bette Stephenson, a former Conservative minister of education, and David Cameron, chair of political science at Dalhousie University - - is to present written recommendations to Ontario's Education Minister John Snobelen on Dec. 15.
The education minister set up the panel in July to address three areas of concern:
- Cost-sharing -- how the cost of operating a $2.2 billion system should be shared between students, government and the private sector.
- Co-operation -- ways to promote and support co-operation between universities and colleges.
- Future directions -- the use of technology, such as the Internet, to create virtual universities to overcome problems of access. The possibility of opening private universities.
The NDP criticized the appointment of the panel. David Cooke, the former Minister, said the appointment of Bette Stephenson, who has been promoting a private university for years, combined with the terms of reference made it clear what the panel was supposed to say -- that private colleges and universities with high fees and limited access were the solution to the problems. Why bother, he suggested, to have a panel when you know the answer in advance.
Presentations to the panel have focused chiefly on the growing debate of how best to fund Ontario's colleges and universities. York University president Susan Mann called for an end to Ontario's "unpredictable" tuition increases that have made it difficult for students and their families to anticipate schooling costs. To make it easier for students to make financial plans, York wants a four-year ceiling put on tuition fees.
In its presentation, Laurentian University urged the province to be more cautious when transferring education costs to students because parents in less wealthy communities often do not see education as an investment, only as a hardship. In northern Ontario, Laurentian presenters said higher fees are having a negative impact on university attendance. And students who made presentations to the panel made it clear tuition cannot carry the cost of providing a post-secondary education. As one student from Sheridan College said: "There is no room to pay more."
But some university administrations have taken a different view. They see tuition fees as one of the few income generators institutions might be able to control. In a brief to the panel, University of Toronto President Robert Prichard said government should shift the principal responsibility for setting tuition rates to the institutions. He said it is time to abandon three decades of tuition fee regulation because the government is no longer willing or able to pay the full cost of a university education.
"Permitting universities to determine their own fees above the formula fee set by the province also contributes to overcoming one of our central problems: inadequate total resources from public and private sources to compete with the finest post-secondary educational experiences in the world," he told the panel.
The University of Toronto argues that it is the strength of financial aid, not tuition fees that determines whether someone can afford to go to university or not. U of T also called for a strengthening of student financial aid by introducing an income contingent loan program. While supporting the deregulation of tuition fees, administrators made it clear they also want funding for Ontario universities restored to the national average within four years. (In government support, Ontario now ranks 10th among 10 provinces.)
Tuition fees and government grants aren't the only means of paying for universities and colleges. Several alternative sources of income were suggested to the panel, including the confederation's recommendation that private sector support be encouraged by offering tax deductions for contributions to educational institutions. McMaster University President Peter George added that profit sharing partnerships and cross-patenting relationships with the business community can provide additional sources of income for universities.
Several presenters urged the government to start looking at post-secondary education as an economic investment that reaps dividends not only for graduates, but for society as a whole. The Council of Ontario Universities pointed out in its presentation to the panel that while university graduates continue to secure better-paid and more interesting jobs than people who do not have a degree, they also provide a "wellspring of prosperity" for Ontario.
Considering the breadth of the discussion areas, some government critics are saying the panel's time frame for reporting back with recommendations to the education minister is too tight.Lynne Ainsworth is a freelance writer in the Toronto area who specializes in education.