Ontario universities face uncertain future

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In order to prevent a projected deficit of $30.2 billion by 2017-18, Canadian economist Don Drummond, in the “Drummond Commission” released on Feb. 15, recommended a series of fiscal initiatives for the Ontario government to consider when constructing the next annual budget.

This, however, has included many setbacks on provincial funding for the public section, including post-secondary education.

Wilfrid Laurier University, along with other Ontario universities, will have to prepare accordingly if such cuts to funding do occur in the next provincial budget. Many recommendations in the report include “accelerated” three-year degrees and a teaching stream that is more emphasized on teaching rather than research.

“From what I heard one person say, there’s ‘pain on every page,’” explained Jim Butler, the vice president of finance at Laurier. “So, it’s going to mean cutbacks in government services and government funding everywhere.”

Due to the ailing pension plan — in which Laurier has an $85 million deficiency — as well as other economic instabilities, Butler anticipates significant cuts to Laurier’s budget for the 2013-14 academic year.

“Any kind of cut [and] anything less than full average cost funding is going to hurt,” Butler continued, noting that special payments of around $13 million to the pension plan may begin early 2013.

“If you combine that with reduced government revenue by way of less government grants for student growth, that’s going to be a very, very challenging year.”

In the report, Drummond recommends that government funding grows at a rate of 1.5 per cent a year until 2017-18, but that does not match up with the figure of the 1.7 per cent projected student enrolment growth up to the same year. As a result, questions have arisen about the potential impact this may have on university education, in particular class sizes and the quality of teaching.

“We’re concerned where we haven’t seen a real expansion in student funding in a really long time. We’re concerned that this signifies that trend [of lower funding] continuing,” warned Sean Madden, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance (OUSA).

“We’ll all feel the pinch,” said Laurier president Max Blouw. “How it will influence universities isn’t clear. [But] it is clear that we’re going to go have to do, as with the famous phrase, ‘more with less.’”

The report’s recommendation of three-year degrees, which are also recommended in the recent “Three-cube” report, will condense a four-year program into three years by allowing students to take required courses in the spring semester and online.

This past year, however, was the last year Laurier allowed students to graduate in a three-year general program. Blouw said that decision was made because of funding, especially since senior courses get more funding than more introductory courses.

According to Deb MacLatchy, the vice-president of academic and provost at Laurier, many students won’t find this that appealing.

“I think a lot of our students are traditional students right now, they’re fresh out of high school, this is their first academic experience,” she explained.

Some concerns have been raised of whether other provinces or countries, either other institutions or employers, would recognize such a degree.

“These days it’s quite more common to take a four-year degree, with an honours embedded within it, then to go onto graduate work,” added Blouw. “If I had two candidates sitting in front of me, one with a three-year degree in post secondary education and another one with four-years, I think that’s going to say something to me as an employer.”

Madden believed that there was value in a three-year degree, debunking the myth that three-year degrees are less worthy than a four-year one. But if the rest of the continent doesn’t catch one, then student interest won’t be strong.

He also added, “We would like to see the funding balanced, we would like to see the per-student funding for a three-year degree go up, like 60 per cent.”
The report also outlines that universities will be able to increase tuition by five per cent each year, over the next five years.

This figure is flexible and may allow universities to only reach an institutional average, meaning that some faculties’ tuitions may be more than others.
“Arts programs may go up by four per cent, [but] professional and graduate programs can go up by eight, as long as there is an institutional average of five per cent,” Madden said.

Laurier’s plans for the next couple of years heavily involve expansion in Brantford and the potential Milton campus, as well as the construction of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIE) building.

According to Blouw, the Milton project may be delayed, but the GIE building, since it received funding from the Liberal government last summer, will still be constructed as planned.

But with these changes in the provincial economy, Laurier will have to increase its emphasis on other “alternative” teaching practises, as the report outlines.
“That’s actually something that we want to continue to investigate as how those types of high-impact learning practises work,” added MacLatchy.

“Co-op programs are very effective, as with our community service learning”
While Blouw believes that Laurier will be able to adapt to the changing times, Madden said that the near future of Ontario university education is all dependent on what the province decides to do.

“For the post-secondary sector, there’s not a whole lot of clarity of what they’re going to take and what they’re not going to take so we’re just waiting to see at this point,” he said.

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