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Opinion Doug Ford was right to cancel funding for new Ontario university campuses

Leo Groarke is president and vice-chancellor of Trent University.

We live in divisive times, full of insult and innuendo. I was reminded of this when I read the comments on Doug Ford government’s decision to cut $305-million of funding for three new postsecondary campuses in the GTA.

Vowing to fight this “devastating” and “shameful” cut, the opposition described it as a “callous” decision to “rip opportunity away from thousands of students,” and “a major blow to job creation and economic activity.”

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Understandably, the institutions that are losing the funding are frustrated. They have invested a great deal of time, effort and planning in the new campuses. I worked on one of the proposals a full 10 years ago. Not surprisingly, the affected cities – Milton, Brampton, Markham – are upset.

But the question of whether this is a time when the government should be funding three new campuses (four if one includes the francophone campus promised by the last government) is legitimate. It deserves to be asked and reasonably considered.

There would be no issue if institutions were funding expansions on their own. Expansions (and contractions) of that sort are a normal part of postsecondary development. At a time when the government is determined to cut spending, the question is whether it should spend $300-million to make new spaces available for students.

The short answer is “No.”

The Ontario University Fair is the largest educational fair in North America. This year, attendance at the fair dropped. This should come as no surprise. Anyone watching developments in postsecondary education over the last decade knows that we have entered a period characterized by a decline in the numbers of Ontario high-school students attending universities and colleges.

The province’s own University Sustainability data (2017), published by the Higher Education Quality Council, concludes that the Ontario population of 18- to 20-year-olds (the age at which the majority of students enter universities and colleges) will not “recover to 2015 levels until the year 2033”. This is not a period in which one can plausibly claim a pressing need for new university and college campuses in Ontario.

In a situation in which the system is characterized by a lack of students, creating entirely new campuses takes students away from existing campuses at a time when they are scrambling to find students they need to fill the spaces they already have available. Institutions in the North are especially vulnerable.

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Educationally, students are our raison d’être. Financially, they provide the revenue that university and college budgets depend on. Institutions have tried to manage a difficult situation by dramatically increasing their numbers of international students. This is a positive development but there are limits to what it makes possible.

Ontario is not a province which has high per-student funding. If the Ontario government wants to keep the province’s current institutions healthy, it needs to make them a priority, not spend limited resources on brand-new projects.

The cities that want new campuses are not entirely wrong. Their interest is founded on the largely correct idea that educational institutions are a boon to the cities which have them. One of the positive developments in postsecondary education over the last two decades has been a trend toward city and postsecondary partnerships.

Postsecondary campuses attract students, stimulate the economy, and provide research and business opportunities, but cities that want new campuses for these reasons should pay for them. They should not expect a provincial government that is trying to wrestle with its deficit to pay for them at a time when there is no pressing need to establish them.

In this case, the Ford government has made the right decision.

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