Ontario’s government is now engaged in public sector restraint and reform tackling its doctors and teachers in an effort to wrestle down its 15 billion dollar deficit. Soon it will be turning its attention to universities. Indeed, work is already underway on an ambitious plan to reform the university sector which according to reports on the activities of colleges, universities and training minister Glen Murray includes having only three year BAs, year round class offerings, standardized first and second year course offerings that are transferrable across institutions, more experiential learning, student centered learning and an online university.
So, what is my point? Well, my concern is not over whether these reforms have merit or not. They may or they may not. My gut feeling is that the proposed changes if implemented will point the way to a more homogeneous and factory-like Ontario university environment but I digress. My point has more to do with the degree of intrusion that Ontario’s government already has in university affairs in terms of regulations, program approvals, and things like “quality assurance”. I mean, given that the provincial government almost completely funds the elementary and secondary school system and the provincial health care system to nearly as high a proportion, they certainly can justify intervening there in any manner they see serving the public interest. After all, remember the other “Golden Rule” – he/she who has the gold, rules.
Yet, Ontario does not have that much gold anymore. Indeed, when it comes to universities, the Ontario government seems to have some very high expectations of what it wants them to do especially given that their contribution to post-secondary finances has declined substantially over the last two decades. In 1989, nearly two-thirds of university and college revenues in Ontario came from provincial grants and yet universities then had a great deal more autonomy than they are about to get given the program changes and standardization the government seems to be suggesting. Today, provincial grants only account for 37 percent of university and college operating revenues in Ontario while the share of tuition has grown from 12 percent to 26 percent. The remainder is filled with compulsory fees, federal grants, research funding and contracts and other revenues.
As the accompanying graphs show, compared to Canada as a whole, Ontario has offloaded a much larger share of its post-secondary operating revenues onto student tuition and other revenue sources. Almost 50 percent of operating revenues for universities and colleges in Canada comes from provincial grants (this proportion would be higher if you omit Ontario) and in Quebec the share is where Ontario was in 1989.
Ontario is about to subject its universities to another round of changes in their operations and programming and yet it is footing less than half of the bill. It would appear that cash strapped Ontario now views even its current level of support as too high and is looking for savings though how much cheaper an online university would actually be is an interesting question. In the process, it is increasingly treating universities not as autonomous institutions but as another government department – with heavily discounted funding. There seems to be an imbalance between the bill that Ontario foots for its post-secondary sector and the amount of control it is exerting over it and in particular university affairs. What about some input from those providing the rest of the funding - like perhaps students. Yet, unlike neighboring Quebec, there has not been a peep of protest out of anyone. There seems to be a public sleepiness to Ontario that at least to me explains why the province’s economy and fiscal situation has become such a basket case over the last decade. I suppose it’s the university sector’s turn.