What to expect in this week’s Ontario budget

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Finance Minister Charles Sousa will deliver the 2015 Ontario Budget on Thursday, April 23, 2015. What can professors and academic librarians expect to see in Ontario’s financial plan?

A good first question is to ask what should be in the budget. As OCUFA pointed out in its pre-budget submission to government, public investment in our universities is lagging behind most peer jurisdictions. Ontario has the lowest level of per-student public funding for universities in Canada, shifting costs onto students and their families. As a result, Ontario also has the highest tuition fees in Canada. This year, tuition fees surpassed public funding as the primary source of university revenue for the first time. Our universities are being quietly privatized.

So, the budget should begin the process of renewing public investment in higher education. The Government of Ontario continues to face serious financial challenges, so it is unreasonable to affect huge new funding injections. However, any movement towards increased per student funding would help take the financial pressure off students while preserving quality at our institutions.

Despite sustained calls for increased investment from faculty, students, and administrators, we are not hopeful that new investments will be forthcoming in the budget. Instead, per-student funding will likely continue to decline. Last year’s budget indicated that operating funding was scheduled to increase by almost three per cent. However, taking account of inflation and enrolment growth, operating funding actually declined last year.  For universities, there was a real drop in total funding – something like 2.5 per cent. Funding per “eligible” student – those for whom universities receive provincial operating support – will fall by 7.5 per cent by 2017.  As OCUFA noted in its analysis of the 2014 Budget, real per student provincial funding has been falling since 2008-09, but in 2014-15 it will be its lowest since the Liberals came to power in 2003. By the end of the current planning horizon, per-student funding will be at its lowest since the higher education system began its expansion in the 1960s. We expect these trends will continue in the 2015 budget.

We can also expect the government to outline its plans to review the university funding formula in the budget paper. While this is important the university sector, formulas are only mechanisms for distributing funding. Without new investment, a new funding formula will only spread around a diminishing pool of public funds. Nevertheless, it is important that the formula be transparent and responsive to the needs of the system. OCUFA has released a series of principles for the funding formula, aimed at guiding the review process.

The 2015 Budget will also emphasize the government’s differentiation agenda, as well as its changes and small investments in student financial aid. These will be re-announcements of activities already underway.

Of course, budgets can contain surprises. OCUFA will be at the Budget announcement, and will be providing analysis and context for our members. Watch this space for the latest news and commentary.

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