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Ontario holding student housing consultations, minister says

Jill Dunlop says she is consulting with the sector on how to remove barriers to creating affordable student housing on and off campus and will be hosting roundtables this fall that will also include municipalities, private career colleges and builders. Dunlop makes an announcement at the legislature in Toronto, Thursday, June 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Steve Russell-Pool

Ontario is holding consultations with colleges, universities and municipalities this fall on student housing, the colleges and universities minister said Monday, as a key report looking at post-secondary funding is expected soon.

Speaking to a legislative committee, Jill Dunlop said she is consulting with the sector on how to remove barriers to creating affordable student housing on and off campus and will be hosting roundtables this fall that will also include municipalities, private career colleges and builders.

It comes after a recent report by a University of Ottawa-based think tank found that Ontario universities nearly doubled international student enrolment between 2014-15 and 2021-22, and colleges more than tripled international enrolment. Mike Moffatt, the author of the Smart Prosperity Institute report, said the creation of student housing has not kept pace.

CTV reported last week that between 50 and 100 international students of Canadore College, mainly from India, could not find housing in North Bay, Ont., and some of them camped out overnight in protest of their situation.

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Since the Progressive Conservative government introduced a 10-per-cent tuition cut in 2019 – as it cancelled the former Liberal government’s free tuition program for low- and middle-income students – and froze fees at that level since then, post-secondary institutions have had to increase their dependence on international student tuition, the auditor general said in a report late last year.

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

An expert panel announced by Dunlop earlier this year looking at “financial sustainability” of the post-secondary education sector is set to complete its report in the coming weeks, she said Monday.

The panel is also looking at issues surrounding international students, and Dunlop said she is not in favour of a cap on international student visas, which the federal government has suggested it is considering.

“I think that international students strengthen our communities,” Dunlop told the committee.

“We need students to come here. We need immigration in this province, and immigration through the pathway of education, I think, is fantastic.”

The government is not considering regulation of international student tuition at this time, Dunlop said in response to questions from NDP member Peggy Sattler.

The expert panel’s research and consultations are complete, Dunlop said, and she is expecting their final report “in the coming weeks.”

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Several groups and institutions have made their submissions to the panel public, and many urge more government funding.

Ontario universities receive the lowest amount of operating grant funding per full-time student of all the provinces, the Council of Ontario Universities wrote. The level in Ontario is $8,647 compared to a Canadian average of $12,215 in 2020-21, the council said.

“Recent provincial budgets across Canada have significantly increased operating funding for universities, while all Canadian provinces except Ontario have allowed for tuition increases,” the council wrote in its submission.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce also called for an increase in operating grants and for removing the tuition fee freeze.

Higher Education Strategy Associates offered several ideas for increasing post-secondary financial sustainability, including annual audits of institutions’ books by the auditor general, but said there is a much simpler solution, and it is to increase provincial funding.

“The only real answer here is better funding, and calls for fiscal responsibility ought not to serve as distractions from this need,” the strategy firm wrote.

“Ontario had the best tuition/student aid policy framework in the country prior to 2019. Reinstate the old framework and everything will be fine.”

When the panel was first announced in the spring, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance said in a statement that a continued tuition freeze was welcome, but it needed to be paired with better Ontario Student Assistance Program funding and higher operating grants to institutions.

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