The Blue Ribbon Panel: The financial health of Ontario’s universities
Laurier — like everyone and everything else in this province, it seems — is struggling financially. Not just Laurier, but the financial sustainability of post-secondary institutions in general is “at serious risk,” according to a panel of experts.
On Nov. 15, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Postsecondary Education Financial Sustainability released a report making recommendations to the provincial government on how to improve the financial state of the sector while centering affordable and quality education for students.
The recommendations relate to six areas including funding, financial accountability, cost efficiency and effectiveness, international students, French-language education and schooling in the north.
The report finds that a freeze on provincial contributions and domestic tuition, coupled with the high inflation rates the province has been seeing, has led colleges and universities to be severely under-funded. Audits have shown colleges in Ontario receive just 44 per cent of the provincial government funds those in the rest of the country do, and universities receive just 57 per cent.
The panel recommends increases to per-student funding from the government to address high inflation.
It also suggests the province establish a “multi-year tuition framework” to slowly lift the tuition cap by increasing tuition by at least five per cent for September 2024, and an additional two per cent each year after that.
This is not an idea supported by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, who were invited to submit their own recommendations to the panel back in the spring. OUSA represents nine university student alliances in the province, including Laurier’s.
We want the provincial government to freeze domestic tuition for the next five years while increasing operating grants.Vivian Chiem, President of OUSA and Vice President of Government and Stakeholder Relations in Laurier’s Students’ Union.
“I know that’s not what [the panel] had proposed, but that’s what we’re advocating for.”
OUSA advocates for and lobbies on the behalf of undergraduate students across the province based on student-driven research gathered from projects like their bi-annual student survey. Their submission to the panel includes quotes from students who are finding it difficult to keep up with the cost of living, and who say supports like OSAP are not doing enough.
When it comes to financial aid, both the panel and OUSA agree that the province should follow in the federal government’s footsteps and remove the interest on the money loaned to students through OSAP.
Both also recommend that OSAP be re-evaluated to give low and middle-income students grants only, rather than a mix of grants and loans.
Data compiled by the The Council of Finance Officers – Universities of Ontario shows that as of the 2021-22 school year more than 60 per cent of universities’ operating revenue came from student contributions, while government funding accounted for just over 30 per cent.
OUSA hopes to see that change in the future, said Chiem. “Ultimately, we would like to see operating grants through a more fair model, where students are contributing no more than a third towards institutional operating budgets,” she said.
The Auditor General of Ontario noted that because of the lack of increase of funds from domestic students, and especially the province, colleges and universities are becoming more reliant on international student tuition fees to balance their budgets.
Data released by the Waterloo Region Community Foundation shows that the total international student enrollment numbers in Waterloo’s postsecondary institutions tripled between the 2014/15 and 2021/22 school years.
“Growth at Laurier…has been slow and thoughtful to ensure proper resources are in place to set students up for success in Canada,” wrote Laurier’s President, Deborah McClatchy, in an OpEd about the panel’s report that was published in The Toronto Star on Nov. 21.
Of Waterloo’s three post-secondary institutes, Laurier has seen the smallest increase in international students, from about 750 students to 1,250. But Conestoga College, which is reported to have approved the highest number of new study permits last year, only had 763 international students in 2014 compared to the nearly 12,750 enrolled in 2021.
Because of these skyrocketing enrollment numbers, the panel encourages the province to work with the Federal Government to establish a “trusted institutions framework” based on student completion rates and other factors to provide expedited visa processing services. Recognizing the role the Federal Government plays in relation to international students, OUSA is open to the panel’s recommendation, said Chiem, but more details on what that will look like are still needed.
“It’s incredibly expensive to study in Ontario as an international student,” she said.
We want to ensure international students who come to Ontario to study are provided with transparency and comprehensive supports to facilitate their settlement, and later, their post-graduation success.Vivian Chiem
Regardless of which recommendations the province decides to accept and how they choose to implement them, Chiem hopes those in mind will “keep student affordability and accessibility at the forefront.”
Students overworking themselves to stay afloat “should not be part of the student experience,” said Chiem. “It’s just really sad to see our peers struggle.”