College budgets low as admission numbers dwindle

Kathleen-WynneRoadTolls

Hunter Crowther & Javon Walker

A new report says Ontario colleges will have to cut staff, increase tuition, provide more online courses and get more government funding if they wish to pull through a decade of declining college enrollment.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report, obtained by the Globe and Mail and commissioned by an advocacy group representing all Ontario colleges, says a $1.9-billion debt created over the next eight years will be added to the province’s budget.

Smaller colleges are also in danger, the study states, and will need to “aggressively manage their costs” if they wish to avoid program closures.

Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews told the Globe and Mail the province will not bail colleges out. However, one critic thinks that’s not the right way of approaching the situation.

“I wouldn’t consider public funding for public resources like higher education a bailout,” said Rajean Hoilett, the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. “And when we’re thinking about essential public resources and services like post-secondary education, we see that it is not treated as a priority.

“We really need to treat public education as a public good,” said Hoilett

Despite the decreasing enrollment rates being a pressing concern across the province, there are measures being made that could potentially help tip the scales.

Matthews said student grants and new loans for indigenous and mature students will help make up for smaller numbers of younger people attending.

“The issue of demographic change is real,” Matthews told the Globe. But “the changes to (financial aid) mean there is a huge potential…for more participation from indigenous students, from mature students.”

There’s also the Ontario Student Grant – labelled by many as being ‘free tuition – starting in the 2017-18 school year that will help many coming from households making less than $50,000 annually afford tuition.

While this will help tens of thousands of students, Hoilett says this isn’t the solution many think it will be.

“This rhetoric that the Ontario Student Grant somehow represents free tuition is a false narrative that has been propagated by this Liberal government and Kathleen Wynne,” said Hoilett. “It’s misleading students and their families.”

He adds that there haven’t been any increases in public funding for post-secondary institutions from the province, and it doesn’t look like the government is interested in changing things.

“If this government is interested in having a conversation on free education, then we would have that,” said Hoilett.

Humber Et Cetera reached out to Conservative MPP and advanced education and skills development critic Lorne Coe for comment on the report.

“We remain concerned about Ontario’s skills gap, which is costing our economy $24.3 billion a year,” Coe said. “This government has done nothing to address this. We need to start graduating students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Tuition increases are only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the impact of declining enrollment, according to the PwC report. Part-time teachers will still need to be let go, potentially lowering the quality of education as tuition rates continue to increase for at least the next two years.

Full-time teachers only make up a third of teaching staff at colleges, the chair of the college academic division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union told the Globe and Mail.

The report also says there is no room for sizable salary increases, despite a five-year provincial wage freeze just expiring. On Thursday, Matthews told reporters at Queen’s Park that the province is ordering colleges to hold on senior school executive salary increasing, some of which were anticipated to reach 50 per cent.

“We will be watching this process closely,” said Coe. “We expect the government to make sure that colleges and universities are using their funds in a transparent and responsible manner.”

Shortly after Et Cetera contacted  New Democratic MPP and advanced education and skills development critic Peggy Sattler’s office, she released the following statement:

“New Democrats have long called on the Liberal government to put a hard cap on public sector CEO salaries and to make sure that our precious public dollars are used to enrich the learning experience of students instead of enriching executives.

“Unfortunately, today’s announcement by (Matthews) has more to do with insulating the Liberal government against criticism than it does with prioritizing classroom needs and investing in post-secondary educations for Ontarians.”

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