Ontario unveils $1B-plus in colleges, universities funding and new legislation

Click to play video: 'Impact of international student cap in Ontario'
Impact of international student cap in Ontario
RELATED: Global News' Colin D'Mello spoke with Minister Jill Dunlop, who says her government is still "running numbers" to see the impact a federal cap on the number of international students allowed in the province will have – Jan 22, 2024

The Ford government has unveiled more than a billion dollars in funding for colleges and universities struggling with a years-long tuition fee freeze made more acute by a federal cap on international students.

In an announcement Monday, Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop said $1.3 billion in new funding would be handed to post-secondary institutions, along with legislative changes.

The proposed legislation includes changes related to student mental health, campus safety and transparency over tuition fees, the province said.

The announcement also maintains a freeze on tuition fees brought in by the Ford government after it cut them by 10 per cent in 2019.

“Instead of burdening hard-working families with higher tuition, we’re making historic investments to stabilize colleges and universities,” Dunlop said in a statement.

“We’re taking action to make fees more transparent. We’re supporting student mental health, fostering safer campuses and preparing students for rewarding careers.”

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Funding to “stabilize” colleges and universities

At the heart of the new announcement is $1.3 billion over three years, money the government says is designed to “stabilize” post-secondary institutions.

The bulk of that money is earmarked for a new fund beginning in the 2024 to 2025 academic year to keep colleges and universities running. That money is set to be $903 million over three years, including $203 million that will go to institutions with “greater financial need.”

The definition of greater need will include geography, enrollment and how much the institution was reliant on international students for income.

A further $167.4 million is being put into capital repairs for post-secondary institutions and $10 million specifically for small rural and northern universities.

The money also includes $100 million for STEM programs and $65.4 million to support “research and innovation.”

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The remaining money, according to the province, is:

  • $15 million through an Efficiency and Accountability Fund to support third-party reviews that are designed to find savings.
  • $23 million to enhance mental health support on university and college campuses.
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The funding of $1.3 billion is less than the total of $2.5 billion recommended by the expert panel the government convened to report back on the state of post-secondary education in Ontario.

That panel also recommended a tuition fee increase.

Asked repeatedly by reporters why the government was announcing less money than its expert panel recommended, Dunlop pivoted to discuss the “historic” nature of the funding.

“This is going to ensure predictability and sustainability for our institutions here in Ontario, but not on the backs of students,” Dunlop said.

The minister did not directly answer questions about what universities and colleges will do in three years when the funding runs out or if she agreed with the federal government’s decision to cap international students.

Peggy Sattler, the Ontario NDP critic for colleges and universities, also did not say if she supported the move to cap international students.

She said she agreed with the Ford government’s decision to keep domestic tuition frozen but accused the government of starving post-secondary institutions of other funds.

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“The government has a responsibility to properly fund our post-secondary institutions,” she said.

“Our institutions… have been starved of resources for too many years. And this is going to be the outcome, we’re going to a loss of programs, a loss of supports and services for students.”

Colleges, universities in financial trouble

The government’s announcement of new funding and a continued freeze on domestic tuition said that when the government instituted its 2019 feeze, Ontario had the country’s highest university tuition.

A report last year by Higher Education Strategy Associates said Ontario’s post-secondary funding is “abysmal” and raising spending to the average of the other nine provinces would require $7.1 billion per year in additional funding — much higher than the current level of operating funding at around $5 billion.

The cap on international students from the federal government has led to even more desperate calls from the sector for alternative sources of income and more money to operate.

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The Council of Ontario Universities said at least 10 universities are projecting operating deficits this year of a combined $175 million.

In January, Steve Orsini, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said the tuition fee freeze bought in by the Ford government was “undermining” student success.

While Orsini said universities have been “very responsible” in how many international students were being enrolled to cover costs, he warned the province that a lack of funding could come with consequences.

“These financial pressures have led to cuts that are impacting student services and supports,” Orsini said.

Average university fees in 2020-21 were $7,938 for domestic undergraduate students and $40,525 for international undergraduate students, the auditor general said in a 2022 report.

Transparency on tuition and student fees

The government’s legislation would also force colleges and universities to offer students a window into how their tuition money and campus fees are being spent.

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The proposed new law would require institutions to give students information about costs for textbooks per program as well as any other ancillary fees required to attend.

Transparency over tuition, which the government described as “the most significant investment a person will make in their life,” is embedded in the legislation.

The province said colleges would be allowed to increase tuition for out-of-province students by no more than five per cent next year, with work underway for a process to allocate the number of international students since a federal cap on how many can come into the country.

New mental health provisions on campuses

As part of the legislation, introduced Monday alongside the new funding, colleges and universities will be under more scrutiny over their mental health rules and anti-hate policies.

The new legislation — titled the Strengthening Accountability and Student Support Act — will require colleges and universities to have specific policies on mental health. It will also force them to have rules to combat racism and hate, the province said, specifically singling out antisemitism and Islamophobia.

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The Ford government has promised to “better integrate” enforcement through various bodies to increase oversight on campuses and track complaints.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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