Examining the “New Austerity” in Ontario higher education

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On May 23, 2013, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) and the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU) hosted a symposium on education in Ontario featuring several Ontario Research Chairs. Glen Jones, a professor at the University of Toronto and Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement, presented his thoughts on “the new austerity” in Ontario’s higher education system.
 
Unlike during the mid-1990s – that last major period of restraint in higher education – the new austerity does not feature substantial cuts to public funding and financial aid. It also does not include significant tuition increases.  Rather, the new austerity is characterized by small, gradual cuts to public university funding, increased investment in student financial aid, and an effort to control tuition fees. While appearing less drastic and more student friendly than the major cuts of the 1990s, these policies still reduce the resources available to universities. As enrolments rise, declining funding causes per-student revenue to drop. Capping tuition fee increases, without providing compensatory funding to universities, further reduces financial resources.
 
As Jones and his York University colleague, Theresa Shanahan, observe, this slow decline in per-student funding will inevitably harm the quality of education provided by Ontario’s universities. This echoes a point repeatedly made by OCUFA: our institutions are already the most efficient and productive in Canada, so the government’s plan to offset cuts with “efficiencies” will not succeed.
 
While less dramatic than previous periods of cutbacks, the new austerity will have a similarly negative effect on our universities. They will struggle to do more with less. As we know, at some point this equation invariably becomes “less with less.”

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