The provincial government will only have to do battle with elementary and secondary-school teachers this spring, as universities and colleges say they can manage for now without funding increases.
Next year, however, universities say they expect a new funding formula to help them balance their books and stop the cuts many are being forced to make, primarily as a result of the end of a decade of expansion in enrolment.
"On a per student basis, the operating budgets are in decline. ... We can get through it, but it's not going to improve quality and it's not going to address our playing a larger role in innovation," said Bonnie Patterson, the president of the Council of Ontario Universities.
The Liberal government raised postsecondary funding by more than $1-billion in the past decade, but most of that money went to accommodating increased enrolment. Talks between the provincial government and universities are starting this spring on how to change the way institutions are funded, moving away from tying government grants to student numbers and toward recognizing different missions for each school. Universities that have been hurt by enrolment decreases and have cut programs or staff – such Nipising, Wilfrid Laurier and Guelph – are looking to the funding shift to help them cope with demographic change.
"For smaller universities that contribute a tremendous amount to the regional economy, what we are going to be leaning on [the provincial government] for is new opportunities that could come from the funding formula," said Michael DeGagné, the president of Nipissing University.
In the meantime, Nipissing will begin a bachelor of social work and expand some graduate programs, hoping to increase revenue and draw new students.
Other small universities agree that they need recognition of the local experience they provide to students, but add that given the province's deficit of $8.5-billion, the 0.4 per cent increase to their funding this year is reasonable.
"In what are very difficult fiscal circumstances from the government, this is good news. The government has not come out and announced that there are cuts to universities and is trying to be careful in what is a difficult financial situation," said Leo Groarke, the president of Trent University.
High school teachers across the province who are in contract negotiations have begun strikes, leaving the Liberal government in need of allies at other levels of the education system. And the budget won over at least one group: College and university students were elated at the extensive changes to student aid, including decreases to the expected level of student contributions and allowing students to work while in school without losing their entitlement to student aid.
"We know that the government cannot give students all the money that they need while they are in school, but this allows students to meet their costs and maybe save a bit so they can start to pay back their loans when they graduate," said Jen Carter, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
Changes to OSAP rules will also benefit college students, who tend to come from lower-income families than the university population.
"When are our students don't make it through the system, we often hear that financial reasons are part of that," said David Agnew, the chair of Colleges Ontario and the president of Seneca College.
A previously announced increase of $55-million to apprenticeship training will also benefit college programs, Mr. Agnew added.
Still, colleges are also hoping to see changes to per-student funding and expect discussions to begin with the government once the formula for universities has been decided.