With Budget 2017 arriving imminently, it is useful to revisit the provincial government forecasts for one of the principal variables in provincial funding for universities – the number of students. In the 2010 provincial budget, the Ontario government optimistically promised to add 40,000 new places for full-time university students by 2015. Because of a demographic dip in the cohort of 18-24 year-olds (already anticipated in 2010), that actual number was never met.
In the 2015 budget, the government changed its tune and predicted that enrolment would flatten and actually decline. However, that assumption should also be taken with a grain of salt. While it may be too early to tell if the number of university applicants for 2017 is an outlier, the proportion of 17 year-old applying to universities has been increasing. Among both undergraduate and graduate students, fall enrolment in 2016 increased by 2 per cent province-wide. With the exception of 2014, the trends suggest enrolment will continue to grow.
Regional demographic changes do mean that some institutions are seeing a decline in enrolment, while others continue to experience increases. This is why a nuanced approach to funding is important, with attention not just to the methods for allocating funding, but the total amount as well.
At this point, OCUFA forecasts that the gap in university funding between Ontario and the average for the rest of Canada will widen to 37 per cent for the current budget year. We do not yet know how much bigger the gap might become this year, but we do know that lowballing the enrolment forecast will certainly compound the effect of declining enrolments where they do occur.
With enrolment increasing, it is vital that the government increase public funding for Ontario’s universities so that they remain capable of providing a high quality postsecondary education.