Editorial Matters: The slow erosion of public university funding

Ontario’s public universities are vital institutions that deliver education to thousands of students, produce thought-provoking and groundbreaking research, and provide good jobs that support many diverse communities.

The province’s vibrant and renowned public postsecondary education system has been evolving for over a century. Core to its development has been a foundation of robust public funding delivered primarily through the provincial government.

Unfortunately, that bedrock of public financial support has been eroding for years, both on a per-student basis and as a share of university operating revenues. Since 2008, Ontario has ranked last among Canadian provinces in per-student funding and, for the first time in more than sixty years, tuition fees now account for more than half of university operating revenues.

A failure to maintain adequate levels of public funding threatens the quality of education and research provided by our universities. This approach inevitably shifts their activities to align with other sources of revenue (fundraising from private sources, higher fees from both domestic and international students, commercialized research) and creates pressure to reduce expenses (more students per class, higher faculty workloads, more contract faculty).

The government’s approach to university funding has profound implications for the student experience and research contributions. A government that makes university funding a priority and maintains a high level of public investment is not just investing in institutions and educational outcomes, but in people, their communities, and our collective future.

This spring’s provincial election campaign presents a valuable opportunity to discuss these challenges. It’s a lot to cover, but in this issue of Academic Matters we explore why public funding is so important for our universities and how we can work together to make funding postsecondary education a priority for the next government.

Graham Cox elaborates on the essential role universities play in our society and how public funding is vital for them to effectively fulfill their mandates. He explores the structure of the funding model changes being proposed by the government and how they will impact postsecondary education in the province.

Gyllian Phillips addresses the stagnation of full-time faculty hiring at Ontario’s universities during a period in which student enrolment has increased dramatically. She suggests how the government should be investing in a robust faculty renewal strategy.

Jeff Noonan discusses the importance of publicly funded basic research. He notes that this research continues to play second fiddle to research linked to short-term commercial profits (much of which is actually publicly funded), and how this approach undermines innovation.

Reflecting on a poll commissioned by OCUFA, André Turcotte and Heather Scott-Marshall describe some of their findings and provide some thoughts on how postsecondary education can become a more prominent issue in current and future provincial elections.

Nour Alideeb recounts her experiences navigating campus conflicts as a student and illustrates the dangers of allowing students and faculty to be pitted against each other. She highlights the benefits of university students, faculty, and staff coming together to build alliances that advance their priorities, locally and provincially.

In a special two-page spread, we illustrate the composition of Ontario university funding over the decades, showing how events like World War II, changes in federal-provincial relationships, and tuition fee policies have impacted the makeup of university funding.

Finally, the always funny Steve Penfold returns with a new edition of his Humour Matters column.

There are many important considerations when it comes to postsecondary funding— how it is informed by government priorities, how it informs university priorities, and how students, faculty, and staff can use their collective power to influence those priorities. We have only been able to explore some of these questions, but this issue of Academic Matters serves as a reminder of why public university funding is a vital investment for the future of Ontario.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together. We think it’s an important one. As always, we love to hear your thoughts. A reminder that every article in this issue, and many more, are available on our website: AcademicMatters.ca. Thanks for reading. AM

Ben Lewis is the Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters and Communications Lead for OCUFA.