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The R.D. Parker Building on the Laurentian University campus in Sudbury, Ont., in 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The Ontario government’s plan to freeze tuition for another three years and add more than $1-billion in funding for colleges and universities amounts to about half of what an expert panel it appointed said was needed to stabilize the finances of the province’s postsecondary system.

Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop announced on Monday more than $900-million over three years in what the province is calling a sustainability fund, as well as about $400-million in new funding in other areas. The province also extended a tuition-fee freeze it brought in after a 10-per-cent cut to domestic tuition in 2019.

Colleges and universities welcomed the new money but said much more is needed.

“I will not apologize for continuing to freeze tuition in this province,” Ms. Dunlop said at a news conference at Queen’s Park. She said people in Ontario are struggling with affordability and the government doesn’t want to add to the burdens faced by students and their parents.

“We are not going to put this on the backs of students,” Ms. Dunlop said.

Monday’s announcement was a response to an expert panel on postsecondary finances convened by the province last March after the insolvency at Laurentian University in 2021.

The panel concluded that the sector’s sustainability was at serious risk and urged the government to allow schools to immediately raise tuition fees by 5 per cent in the first year followed by increases to match the rate of inflation thereafter.

It also called for a 10-per-cent increase in each school’s per-student operating grant, followed by raises of at least 2 per cent in subsequent years.

Meeting that recommended target would have required about $2.5-billion in spending according to the Council of Ontario Universities, nearly double the $1.3-billion announced Monday.

The panel’s recommendations were delivered in November, before the federal government announced a cap on international study permits that is expected to hit Ontario particularly hard. As many as 10 Ontario universities are projecting deficits this year.

Steve Orsini, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said investment in the system is welcome, but this package falls far short of what’s needed.

“The sector needs to ensure financial sustainability. This is an important first step, but it doesn’t go far enough to address the government’s own expert panel recommendations,” Mr. Orsini said.

He added that this funding is a one-time announcement that will expire in three years, meaning the gap universities will have to make up at that point will only grow larger. He called on the government to do more when it presents its budget later this year.

Colleges Ontario president Marketa Evans said she also expects further action from the province.

“The future of the high-quality programs offered to students remains at risk,” Ms. Evans said.

Ms. Dunlop also announced a suite of new spending in a range of areas. There will be more than $165-million for capital repairs and equipment and $100-million to support students in STEM programs whose enrolment was not previously subsidized with a provincial grant as a result of funding caps. There is also a further $23-million for mental-health supports.

Ontario’s colleges have used the boom in international students to steady their finances. According to the expert panel, Ontario colleges’ per-student funding is 44 per cent of per-student funding in the rest of Canada, while Ontario university students are funded at 57 per cent of the rate in the rest of the country.

Despite that level of government support, all but one of the province’s 24 colleges ran a surplus last year, with the largest, Conestoga College, posting a surplus of more than $100-million. But the federal government has pledged to cut new visa numbers by 35 per cent, which is expected to mean hundreds of millions in lost revenue for Ontario postsecondary institutions.

Ms. Dunlop said the Progressive Conservative government is still examining how to allocate international study permits within the postsecondary system.

She said of the $900-million in the sustainability fund, $700-million is available to all schools, while $200-million is targeted for those deemed medium to high risk of financial difficulty. A further $10-million is earmarked for small, Northern and rural schools.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford had already ruled out tuition increases ahead of Monday’s announcement, telling reporters last month he didn’t think it was right to ask struggling students to pay more.

Mitra Yakubi, Canadian Federation of Students Ontario chairperson, said the funding announcement didn’t go far enough to address the root causes that make education inaccessible.

“The postsecondary education system as a whole has been put in a really precarious situation,” Ms. Yakubi said.

Ontario NDP critic Peggy Sattler said she supports the tuition freeze, but believes the government is in the dark about the problems caused by decades of underfunding that forced schools to rely on international student fees.

“It is clear that this Conservative government does not in any way understand the severity of the crisis that our postsecondary institutions are facing,” Ms. Sattler told reporters.

The government also announced plans to require schools to publicly post a transparent breakdown of the fees they charge, strengthen mental-health policies and make policies on combatting racism and hate mandatory.

With reports from Jeff Gray and Laura Stone

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