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Ontario universities, colleges urge provincial parties to invest or risk declines in quality of education

After years of government funding focused on increasing participation in postsecondary education, colleges and universities will be calling on the winner of the June 7 Ontario provincial election to invest in their institutions – or see the quality of education slide.

Changes to financial aid have expanded access to higher education, especially for underrepresented students, but now new money is needed to hire more faculty, add new facilities and enhance in-demand degrees, schools say.

“If you want new engineering students and people who understand artificial intelligence, you need to invest in the technology and the equipment, or the quality of the programs will continue to deteriorate,” said David Lindsay, chief executive of the Council of Ontario Universities.

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“Our enrolment in [science, technology, engineering and math] has gone up ... but we have not had a [matching] increase in professors,” he said.

The Liberal government set a goal of graduating 25-per-cent more students in STEM fields over the next five years. If a new government maintains that target, universities need additional financial support to achieve it, Mr. Lindsay said.

Student groups, however, are adamant that regardless of which party emerges victorious at the ballot box, the next government must continue to protect the affordability of higher education. A cap of 3-per-cent increases on undergraduate tuition fees expires in 2019.

“We have seen drastic increases in students’ contributions, with students contributing 55 per cent of [total] universities’ costs,” said Danny Chang, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance. “We are of the belief that tuition should be regulated at the rate of inflation.”

The Canadian Federation of Students has long argued that tuition fees should be eliminated. “Over 70 per cent of jobs require a [bachelor’s degree],” said Nour Alideeb, chairperson of CFS-Ontario. “Why are we not shifting to [accessible education]?”

No party has pledged to meet every group’s demands. The 2018 provincial Liberal budget contained increases of less than 1 per cent to university funding for several years, with student financial aid swallowing much of that money. The NDP has promised to increase grants to schools, and financial aid for students. And while the Conservative platform says it will grow access to apprenticeships – a priority for colleges – it also includes multiple tax cuts, raising questions about reduced support to the public sector, including to higher education.

Funding from Queen’s Park to universities and colleges increased to approximately $5-billion in 2015 from $3.5-billion a decade before, but much of the hike was attributable to soaring enrolment. Financial aid to students quadrupled to more than $1.1-billion in the same period.

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The money has only allowed the sector to keep up rather than invest in facilities, faculty or programs in demand such as science, tech and engineering, institutions say.

“Ontario still has an outstanding university system, but we are a system at risk,” said Gyllian Phillips, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). “The Liberals have put an emphasis on access, but when students have access to university, the other side needs to be there, too. What are they getting access to?”

OCUFA wants to see universities hire more of their part-time contract professors for permanent, tenure-track positions. The NDP platform contains $1-billion in funding over five years for faculty renewal.

Colleges, too, are running out of options to fill gaps in their budgets, said Linda Franklin, the president of Colleges Ontario.

“We have a huge and growing deficit in the college sector, but international tuition is masking that to some extent,” Ms. Franklin said. Higher fees paid by international students are not a guaranteed income stream, she added, and colleges don’t want to become too reliant on them.

Independent reports on the financial health of colleges have sounded alarms about the sector’s long-term sustainability, Ms. Franklin pointed out. Colleges should be allowed to raise tuition beyond a 3-per-cent hike, even if only by $200 a year.

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“It would not put it out of the range of our students, and it would make it easier for the colleges,” she said.

Editor’s note: The number of STEM enrollments has been corrected.
Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne emotionally said she believes her party will lose the June 7 election. Wynne urged voters to elect as many Liberals as possible to ensure the other parties can only win a minority. The Canadian Press
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