The Hamilton Spectator

Budget should address school funding issues

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Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfal­vy frames the province’s coming budget as a “continuati­on” that will pick up on the themes of previous fiscal plans that emphasized investment­s in housing, infrastruc­ture and training.

“You have to have a long-term plan and long-term vision, because to build a highway, to build a school, to build a hospital, to train up workers, to attract people is not an overnight thing. Our budget will continue to be on that theme of rebuilding the economy and supporting, the people who build that economy,” he told the Toronto Star’s editorial board last week.

He lamented what he called “short termism,” a political mindset that can become too focused on the next election.

In that vein, there is one big piece of unfinished business for the government. Or rather, one significan­t problem of the province’s own making that needs urgent attention.

A blue-ribbon panel last November sounded the alarm about the financial state of Ontario’s colleges and universiti­es, citing the Progressiv­e Conservati­ve government’s 2019 decision to cut tuitions by 10 per cent and then freeze them.

In capping tuitions it would have been reasonable to expect the province to make up the funding shortfall to colleges and universiti­es. It didn’t. Instead, the post-secondary institutio­ns were expected to absorb that lost revenue.

“As time goes on, this situation is ever more likely to pose a significan­t threat to the financial sustainabi­lity of a major part of the province’s post-secondary sector,” the panel report stated.

Fast forward to February when the province pledged an extra $1 billion over three years for colleges and universiti­es to help address the financial crisis. And it extended the tuition freeze for another three years, a time frame that convenient­ly coincides with the next provincial election.

It was a left-hand, right-hand kind of announceme­nt, giving with one while taking away with the other.

Now a cap on internatio­nal students, who pay significan­tly higher tuitions, could add to the post-secondary financial woes. It could be argued that some institutio­ns, colleges in particular, opened their doors wide to foreign students as a way mitigate their funding woes.

While the provincial announceme­nt will certainly help the bottom line, it notably fell short of the remedies proposed by the panel — an immediate 10 per cent boost in provincial grants and a five per cent tuition fee increase this year, plus further tuition hikes tied to inflation.

As a result, the financial problem the government attempted to solve remains.

Ontario universiti­es are at a “breaking point,” the Council of Ontario Universiti­es said in a February statement. It noted that the province’s universiti­es receive the lowest per-student funding in the country. And it made clear that schools are looking to the March 26 budget for further aid.

Against this backdrop, Bethlenfal­vy rightly frets about the province’s aging population and the need to address labour shortages in skilled profession­s.

“It’s the thing that keeps me up at night more than anything.” He speaks about the importance of foreign students to meet those labour needs.

“We talk about labour all the time. We need to attract people from around the world to fill the jobs,” he said.

Yet he defends the tuition freezes — “the premier and our team really want to keep the costs down so that’s the impetus for that” — while saying the government will work with “challenged colleges and universiti­es to stabilize the funding.”

The consequenc­es of not addressing that funding crisis are severe. The panel said that failure to act will “threaten the province’s reputation, with significan­tly negative effects for internatio­nal student recruitmen­t, the advancemen­t of regional economies, the preparedne­ss of our future workforce, and the attraction of foreign investment.”

Given such risks, it’s hard not to think that the provincial government’s current approach to funding post-secondary education is Exhibit A in what Bethlenfal­vy might call “short termism.”

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