Wilfrid Laurier University is ready to talk about any proposals the new Conservative government may have about free speech on campus, says President Deborah MacLatchy, as universities begin to assess how Ontario’s electoral shift will affect them.
“Right now, Laurier has the most up-to-date statement on freedom of expression in the province,” Ms. MacLatchy said. “We went through a full public consultation on freedom of expression, we have a Senate-approved, Board-endorsed statement.”
Laurier has been at the centre of an ongoing discussion about how universities encourage and protect free speech since several staff members disciplined graduate student Lindsay Shepherd earlier this year for playing a clip for a class of a debate featuring controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. Ms. Shepherd has since become a high-profile advocate for free expression.
“I am hoping that the specifics [of a policy] is something universities would be able to be in dialogue about,” Ms. MacLatchy said.
Protecting free speech on postsecondary campuses was one of the few concrete promises premier-designate Doug Ford made about education during the provincial election campaign. Mr. Ford’s platform also included a nod to the importance of growing apprenticeship programs.
Whether that relative inattention means postsecondary education will face benign neglect, cuts or if the sector can sway the government to increase investments, is not yet clear.
Several universities contacted by The Globe and Mail said they are waiting to see which direction the new government takes on postsecondary education before before staking out their positions.
“We are … ready to work with the government on a range of issues of importance to our academic mandate and our stakeholders,” said Douglas Kneale, provost of the University of Windsor, in an e-mailed statement.
Already, however, universities and colleges have lost the promise of $214-million in green-energy grants, pledged by the province and federal government this past winter.
The grants were to be funded partly through rebates from Ontario’s cap-and-trade program. Mr. Ford has said cancelling cap-and-trade will be his government’s first order of business.
“The new government will be sworn in on June 29 and will provide clear rules on the orderly wind down” of associated programs, said Yanni Dagonas, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.
Some universities may continue retrofit programs such as installing updated HVAC systems or energy efficient windows amid the change.
“Many of the things that universities are doing, and Laurier specifically, are based on long-term identified needs and we would hope that the new government will recognize those needs,” Ms. MacLatchy said.
One of the most significant questions facing universities is whether the Conservatives will look to universities and colleges to bear some of the costs of the promised tax cuts. Together, higher education, employment-training programs and student financial aid make up one of the province’s most substantial expenses.
Another question is whether the government will continue the process of shifting to a postsecondary funding system that rewards institutions based on their particular strengths – such as community impact, research strength, access for underrepresented groups or increased experiential learning opportunities – rather than just enrolling more students.
Initiatives such as experiential learning terms and co-ops for increasing numbers of students are helping graduates find work in their respective fields faster, said University of Western Ontario provost Janice Deakin. “We are graduating students who can enter the workforce with experience and hit the ground running,” she said.
Economic growth, productivity and investment are also bolstered by research happening at universities, she added.
“The [university] rankings matter, being a global player matters.”
But universities could also face renewed competition from colleges, which want to offer more three and four-year degrees in areas such as engineering and technology, and have been pleading for faster approvals of new or expanded programs.
“We want to move ahead and develop engineering degrees and have them articulated with diploma programs so students can transfer seamlessly from [college to university],”’ said Chris Whitaker, the president of Humber College.
Humber was working with the Liberal government toward becoming a polytechnic, Mr. Whitaker added.
“We are hoping that momentum continues on that.”