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Ontario’s regional universities are in jeopardy — and so are the future of our communities

“Increasingly, however, regional universities are alone in shouldering the costs of educating our future citizens and supporting our communities due to funding freezes from the province.” R.J. Johnston / Toronto Star

Regional universities are shouldering the costs of educating citizens and face an untenable financial future that jeopardizes Ontario’s prosperity.

Regional universities drive economic prosperity in Ontario.

At Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph more than 90 per cent of our students are from Ontario. When they graduate, these students remain in the province, providing our communities with business leaders, teachers, engineers and health care professionals, to name just a few.

We also provide important services to our communities through our employment opportunities, research and innovation collaborations with industry, community access to our top recreational facilities and partnerships with community organizations.

Increasingly, however, regional universities are alone in shouldering the costs of educating our future citizens and supporting our communities due to funding freezes from the province.

We are now facing an untenable financial future that jeopardizes the prosperity of Ontario. The Blue Ribbon Panel on post-secondary Education Financial Sustainability noted as much in its recently released report to the Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities: “the sector’s financial sustainability is currently at serious risk, and it will take a concerted effort to right the ship.”

This situation has been many years in the making. Operating grants from the provincial government have been frozen since 2006 and the province has not funded for net new students since 2016. In 2021-2022 alone, U of G and Laurier had 1,000 and 2,200 unfunded students, carrying a cost of $7.5 million and $17.4 million to the institutions.

Then in 2019, the province cut domestic tuition fees by 10 per cent and has frozen them since. For institutions that serve a mainly Ontario population, this cut has had a deeper impact on our financial situation. These sharp declines in revenue happened in an era of historically high inflation.

We do not have many other options for revenue. Growing international student enrolment is one opportunity, however growth at Laurier and U of G has been slow and thoughtful to ensure proper resources are in place to set students up for success in Canada.

We recognize people in Ontario are struggling with living costs and do not want to impose a large tuition hike on students. We do need some movement on tuition, which has declined by 15 per cent in real dollars since 2019. We support the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendation for a modest tuition increase and recommendations to increase OSAP grants and access to student aid. Universities will continue to support students in need with funds we set aside for these purposes.

We also support the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendation the province increase corridor funding, including commitments for modest annual increases to reflect inflation. Both K-12 education and health care sectors receive annual increases in operating funding to address financial needs caused by inflation and population growth. Universities should be no different.

We continue to do our part, finding efficiencies to deliver the best value for public dollars.

Laurier projected an $11 million operating deficit and has implemented a hiring pause and an additional $2-million in-year non-salary cuts. This is in addition to the $20 million already cut from the operating budget over the last few years.

U of G has forecasted a $17 million operating deficit for this year and experienced deficits for the past three years despite cutting more than $20 million in the past two years. The university has reduced student services, paused enrolment for some programs, dipped into reserves and is also embarking on a strategic transformation to find opportunities for further modernization and revenue generation.

These cuts are not sustainable.

Students deserve high quality, affordable education and access to the supports they need to thrive at university.

We look forward to working with the province on the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel to find a funding model that reflects the increasing demand for university education in Ontario and the integral role regional universities play in the prosperity of Ontario communities.

Deborah MacLatchy is president and vice-chancellor at Wilfrid Laurier University and Charlotte Yates is president and vice-chancellor at the University of Guelph.

This article originally appeared as an op ed in the Toronto Star.

Deborah MacLatchy and Charlotte Yates
Deborah MacLatchy and Charlotte Yates
  Deborah MacLatchy is president and vice-chancellor at Wilfrid Laurier University. Charlotte Yates is president and vice-chancellor at the University of Guelph.
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