The Liberal government’s first budget as a majority is another dud for Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, say critics, with no new funding for the second year in a row. Finance Minister Charles Sousa tabled his budget on 23 April with a message all about creating more jobs and economic growth.
The government plans to spend more than $130 billion over 10 years on infrastructure projects, partly financed through real estate sales and a 60 per cent sell-off of Hydro One, the Crown corporation that transmits electricity around the province.
“People are rightly concerned about the government’s plan to privatize Hydro One,” said Kate Lawson, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. “At the same time, we need to recognize the quiet shift of higher education costs away from the public realm and onto students and their families. For the first time ever, tuition fees now account for more than half of university budgets — this is another form of privatization.”
Per-student university funding in Ontario has now declined to a level not seen since the 1960s, said Lawson, but the combination of chronic underfunding and record-level enrolment means universities increasingly turn to hiring contract academics who receive low pay and few, if any, benefits.
“Students, contract faculty members, and their families are now paying for the government’s unwillingness to invest in universities. In the longer term, every Ontarian will feel the effects of the erosion of public university funding,” said Lawson.
The budget includes a number of modest measures to shore up student financial assistance, with the indexation of maximum student loan levels and the debt cap indexed to inflation. A new loan “rehabilitation” program will allow defaulted borrowers back in good standing to continue with reduced loan payments. Students also no longer need to list their vehicles as assets when applying for government assistance.
Students were quick to denounce the proposed changes that will allow students to take on more debt, but don’t address the upfront cost of education.
“It’s ironic this budget is titled Building Ontario Up, since students will continue to be dragged down by high tuition fees and ballooning student debt loads,” said Anna Goldfinch, the national executive representative of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario. “The government must have the political will to make meaningful investments to build a system of post-secondary education that is truly affordable and accessible for all Ontarians.”
The budget document is heavy on restraint with the finance minister insisting the government can eliminate a $10.9 billion deficit by 2017–2018.
Lawson says the government has to deliver more and cannot save its way to prosperity.
“The budget repeatedly acknowledges that universities are vital to economic prosperity, yet does not make any new investments in public funding for higher education institutions,” she said. “Well-funded, public universities are absolutely vital to a strong economy and a fair society. We need to invest in our universities to maintain excellence and to make sure they remain public. When we do that, we’re actually investing in students, in communities and in the future of our province.”