By David Lindsay
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities
This month, around 90,000 first-year undergraduates are starting a new chapter of their life on an Ontario university campus. They are making a decision to invest in their future by going to university and by working hard to develop their knowledge and skills in a rapidly changing world.
It’s a sound investment: Our research reveals that Ontario university graduates earn more than double the salary of high-school graduates, adding up over their lifetime, on average, to an estimated $1.5 million in additional earnings. Then, of course, there are the social benefits and personal growth that come from the university experience.
But it’s also a sound investment in terms of wider benefits for the people of Ontario: The economic growth, strong communities and scientific and technological innovation the province needs to prosper depend largely on fostering the talent and skills to fill tomorrow’s jobs. Universities are committed to working diligently with our public and private sector partners for a dynamic and prosperous future. They have been listening to students and their families and responding to market forces, whether it’s through wider work-related learning opportunities, evolving programs, modern learning environments or expanded student services.
None of these benefits to students, communities and the province come cost-free. Students in undergraduate programs face average tuition of more than $8,400, which, as is widely known, is among the highest in Canada. Meanwhile, the provincial government spent a total of $4.3 billion on university funding in 2016-17. Higher education is not an inexpensive investment, but it is an essential one. It is an investment in every Ontarian’s future.
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Substantial sums of money are involved in paying for higher education – both at the student, family and government level – and universities are highly respectful of the trust the public places in them to operate as efficiently and productively as possible. Every dollar is important, whether it comes from a student, the taxpayer or a donor.
Given that affordability for Ontarians (in both private and public sector services) is a central pillar of Premier Doug Ford’s new government, there is certainly incentive for advocates of lower tuition – including, of course, student associations – to keep up the pressure. Ontario universities agree that university access should be affordable and open to each and every young person who qualifies, regardless of their family circumstances. But it is a mistake to reduce the issue down to simply a matter of the cost of tuition. The single biggest contribution to a healthy and affordable university system in Ontario is stable and predictable funding that reflects the reality of what universities require to carry out their mission now and in the future.
At the Council of Ontario Universities, we believe that before making funding requests to governments, public intuitions need to demonstrate their value proposition to the people they serve. To that end, we have been busy spreading the word about the many ways our universities are partnering for a better future for Ontario – not only helping prepare students for the new economy, but also creating economic growth through research and innovation and incubating start-ups, improving health care through leading-edge research and training the provinces’ health professionals, and building strong communities by sharing knowledge and working together with local municipalities on issues such as transit, infrastructure and services.
But to continue to make these investments in Ontario’s future, we need to continue to invest in universities – and invest wisely. Since the mid-2000s, the provincial government has not increased core per-student operating grants to universities (an 11-per-cent decline in real terms since 2010), and Ontario universities operate on the lowest level of per-student funding in Canada. While funding has stagnated over the past decade, enrolment in most disciplines has leapt. Enrolment in the STEM subjects, which are so key to a thriving economy, has increased by about 70 per cent, and health professional programs by nearly 50 per cent. Only enrolment in humanities programs has dropped, no doubt reflecting students’ perception of where the jobs will be in the changing economy.
Meanwhile, universities’ operating costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation, due to factors such as faculty compensation and initiatives that institutions are implementing to adapt to the changing economy and workplace, such as building modern learning environments, increasing the numbers of STEM graduates by another 25 per cent, and upgrading services such as mental-health supports for students.
The current state of public funding has inevitably meant that when universities need more revenue, these increases are borne largely by raising tuition. As operating grants have declined in real terms, tuition fees have steadily risen, to the point that they represent a growing portion of universities’ operating revenues – more than 51 per cent in 2016-17. And while tuition increases have led to some criticism that programs are becoming unaffordable, the truth is that Ontario also offers a generous system of student grants and loans that – in conjunction with $900m in annual scholarships offered by the institutions – makes a university education within reach for most young Ontarians. Indeed, revisions to OSAP last year meant that 210,000 students attended a PSE institution effectively for free.
What should the right mix of government grants versus tuition fees be? It’s an important debate to have, especially since both universities and students would like to see some changes to the current structure. Adding an extra dimension to the debate is a new government at Queen’s Park, which will examine all future funding asks through a lens of efficiency and value for money.
Targeted funding has become a popular means of ensuring institutions direct money toward a particular use, such as helping universities add experiential-learning opportunities or do energy-saving retrofits to buildings. When such funds align with common goals, targeted funding is to be welcomed; after all, the benefit of expanding experiential learning is something universities, governments, students and employers can agree on. But targeted funds need to be combined with predictable operational grants that at minimum keep pace with inflation and allow universities to fulfill their mission to invest in Ontario’s future. Educating students for the modern workplace increasingly demands modern learning environments and research facilities. Funding levels of the past decade have risked jeopardizing those investments.
The tuition-fee framework that caps annual increases expires at the end of this academic year, and while that deadline may not give government enough time to consider all these questions in unison, it is an issue that needs to be addressed in due course. Moving forward, I believe there is ample room to align the governments’ goals of affordability and responsible public spending with universities’ commitment to keep investing in a brighter future for Ontario.
This year’s new undergraduates expect it, as will the young, eager minds who follow them in decades to come.
This article appears in the 2018 issue of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance Magazine, Educated Solutions.