Several months into its first term, the Progressive Conservative government led by Ontario Premier Doug Ford made what has turned out to be one of its most poorly considered decisions.
Mr. Ford won office in June, 2018, on a promise to reduce the burden on ordinary taxpayers, a mantra of his since he was right-hand man to his brother Rob at Toronto City Hall. In line with that pledge, his “Government for the People” cut tuition fees for college and university students by 10 per cent across the board. The aim was “to keep more money in the pockets of Ontario students and families.” Who could possibly object to that?
Well, the colleges and universities could. They immediately complained that the government was cutting their income without making up the huge loss with money from government coffers.
Tough luck, said Merrilee Fullerton, the minister in charge. The universities and colleges would simply have to “make choices in terms of what they need to do.” It was up to them “to change, to adapt and innovate.”
They have done just that. Robbed of revenue from domestic students, they stepped up their courtship of foreign ones, who pay much higher fees. Ontario colleges now get about three-quarters of their fee revenue from international students. In fact, a new report says the revenue from the students of one country alone, India, exceeds the amount the colleges get from the provincial government, which funds postsecondary institutions at a far stingier rate than other provinces.
Ontario’s Auditor-General says universities have become similarly dependent. Because of the tuition fee cut and Ontario’s low per-student funding, “the universities are turning towards international student revenue for financial sustainability,” said Bonnie Lysyk in a recent report.
So Mr. Ford’s little tuition fee break had an unintended, but easily foreseen, consequence. It quickened the flow of international students to Canada. This country now hosts 800,000, up from 275,000 as recently as 2012. That is a staggering figure in a country of 40 million.
Many live in crummy apartments and do menial jobs to get by, hoping their schooling will give them a path to staying here for good. Education has become a back door to immigration.
Now Ottawa is considering a cap on foreign-student visas. Though it has been rightly careful to say that immigrants are not to blame for Canada’s housing crisis, which has complex roots going back decades, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people can’t have failed to contribute to the demand for affordable housing in many communities, helping push rents and home prices up. What was intended to be a harmless people-pleaser – cheaper schooling for all! – has ended up hurting Ontarians quite literally where they live.
That is doubly ironic because the Ford government is fixated on the housing crisis. It has set itself the highly ambitious goal of building 1.5 million homes in the next decade. That fixation led Mr. Ford to break an election-campaign promise to keep all of Southern Ontario’s Greenbelt free of development. The dodgy dealing that followed has plunged him into the deepest hot water of his premiership. Two damning reports from provincial watchdogs just forced his housing minister to quit. The tuition cut of 2019 has come back to bite him in 2023.
Far worse than that, it has weakened postsecondary education in his province. Ontario’s colleges and universities are some of its greatest assets. They keep its vital cities humming and its strong economy turning over. Mr. Ford cut the legs out from under them.
Not only did he slash the tuition fees they could charge, he froze them at their reduced levels, where they remain. Queen’s Park announced back in March that Ontario students could rest assured their fees would not go up this fall (though the government is allowing a five-per-cent increase for students from other provinces).
What happens if a resurgence of COVID-19 or a federal crackdown on student visas cuts the flow of foreign students? Where will the colleges and universities be then?
Mr. Ford’s government has appointed a blue-ribbon panel to study the financing of the postsecondary system. Let’s hope it has something sensible to say – and Mr. Ford listens.
If he cares about higher education, he really has only two options: let colleges and universities charge higher fees or fund them properly. At present, he is doing neither.