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The newly-opened student centre at the Laurentian University campus on Feb. 1, 2021. Laurentian is in the midst of a three-month restructuring that the university says will likely lead to job losses.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

Ontario universities are asking the provincial government for an additional $500-million this year to deal with financial pressures brought on by the pandemic.

The province’s 20 publicly funded universities say they’ve lost more than $1-billion since the onset of COVID-19. The losses stem primarily from residences and cafeterias that have been closed or run at lower capacity as well as conferences and facility rentals that have disappeared.

The universities say they’ve made cuts and found savings that cover roughly half their losses and are seeking a one-time infusion of cash. They also want to discuss how to achieve long-term and sustainable funding for a system they argue is crucial to work-force training and the province’s economic future.

Steve Orsini, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said the government needs to know that postsecondary institutions are facing financial challenges.

“We’re looking for sector-wide financial support, so that we can continue to support the education of our work force, which is vital to building jobs and our businesses,” Mr. Orsini said. “Doing nothing won’t support the sector.”

The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities did not say whether it would consider boosting funding to universities to cover pandemic-related costs in the coming provincial budget.

Scott Clark, a spokesman for Minister Ross Romano, said the ministry spends more than $5-billion annually on the province’s publicly assisted colleges and universities and provided $25-million in additional emergency funding after the onset of the pandemic last year. It also provided $50-million through its Virtual Learning Strategy to assist with some of the costs associated with the shift to online learning. In addition, the province is providing $164-million in capital funding to colleges and universities this year, Mr. Clark said.

The normally stable postsecondary sector was rocked earlier this month by news that Laurentian University had filed for creditor protection in the face of looming insolvency. The Sudbury university was weeks away from being unable to meet its payroll and had spent funds set aside for research to keep the lights on.

Laurentian is now in the midst of a three-month restructuring that the university says will likely lead to job losses. Even tenured faculty risk being laid off as the university aims to eliminate programs and reduce its course offerings.

One of the many factors that contributed to Laurentian’s financial difficulties, according to its court filings, was a 10-per-cent cut to domestic tuition fees imposed by the province in 2019, followed by a one-year freeze.

Mr. Orsini did not say whether he would be asking the government to lift the domestic tuition-fee freeze for fall 2021, saying only that the long-term sustainability of the system needs to be discussed.

The ministry said it is preparing for the 2021-22 tuition fee framework and will provide more information when it’s available.

Not all institutions have fared the same in the pandemic. The University of Toronto, for example, is projecting more than $30-million in additional net income this year, while Queen’s University has projected a deficit of nearly $30-million.

Credit-rating agency Moody’s said in a report this week that it has lowered its assumptions about the amount of emergency support that universities could expect from the Ontario government in case of crisis.

The report concludes there is increased risk that the province “would allow universities to interrupt payments to creditors ahead of any extraordinary support being provided.” The report also said that Laurentian’s situation may indicate “weaker regulatory oversight from the province to the higher education sector than previously assumed.”

Mr. Orsini did not express a view about how additional pandemic-related funding, if it’s forthcoming, should be distributed among universities. He said the government has many options at its disposal and declined to say whether it should be divided equally or based on relative financial need or by the size of the school.

“The government needs to decide how it wants to allocate it,” Mr. Orsini said.

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