Election uncertainty and post-secondary education

James Compton

Election time will soon be upon us. The 42nd Ontario general election is scheduled to be held on or before June 7, 2018. For political junkies like me this is a lot of fun. I'm drawn to the uncertainty of it all and the raw politics of competition for popular support. But beyond the spectacle of the political horse race lies the much more sober and serious consideration of public policy. Dropping the writ is a constitutional convention that opens up a liminal space full of possibility and potential for social and economic change. Change, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. The cry of "It's time for change" is a perennial favourite of all opposition parties, while governing parties usually settle into some form of its narrative opposite.

Perspectives on the social good vary depending on one's political persuasion. But what about post-secondary education (PSE)? What are the issues confronting educators across the province, and what have the three political parties said about them? There are many, but I'll focus on three: funding; faculty renewal; and fairness for contract academic staff (CAS).

Public funding for higher education has been in decline across the country and in Ontario since the 1980s. In 1987 close to 80 per cent of operating revenues came from the government; today it is below 50 per cent. In Ontario this problem is particularly acute. Considered on a per-student basis, Ontario is in last place among all provinces. In 2008/09 the Ontario government contributed $8,486 per student in current dollars. Today that number stands at $7,692. The Canadian average is $12,562, with Newfoundland claiming the top spot, spending $24,252 per student. To make up for this decline tuition fees have been allowed to rise, with Ontario now holding the ignominious position of having the highest payments in the country. Fees for international students have also risen, creating barriers to entry for students.

The decrease in public funding for PSE has also negatively affected faculty renewal. If you've noticed that your classes have become larger over the years, you're not alone. Ontario has the worst student-to-faculty ratio in the country. In 2016/17 the national average was 22 students for every full-time faculty member at a university. In Ontario it was 31 students, according to figures provided by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). This has serious impacts on the quality of teaching.

The over-reliance on poorly paid CAS at universities and colleges has gained significant attention in the last few years, and for good reason. OCUFA estimates that the number of courses taught by CAS in Ontario nearly doubled since 2000. The fight against this trend has spread in the past few years, and UWOFA can claim to have played a role in the growing public awareness of the problem having made gains for CAS a key bargaining goal in our 2014 negotiation round.

So what have the parties said about all this? Well, for the most part we have no clue. As I write this short column, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party is mired in scandal and internal party intrigue as they begin the process of choosing a new leader. They did have a party platform. The “People’s Guarantee” was released to quite a bit of fanfare at the party’s policy convention in Toronto last November. But it has since been scrubbed from the party’s official website, while some of the leadership candidates have disowned it.

What about the NDP? A visit to the party’s official website at the time of writing found four key issues: Ontario Hydro rates; seniors care; universal Pharmacare; and mental health services. All important issues, but nothing on PSE.

That leaves the governing Liberals, who unlike the opposition, can be judged on their legislative record. Are they going to improve public funding for PSE? Here we have a concrete policy to examine. The Liberal government has made fundamental changes to the funding model. In the past, universities and colleges received money tied to their enrolment. That is changing. Under the new plan – dubbed Corridor Funding – universities will have to keep enrolment within 3 percentage points of a target that has been negotiated between each institution and the provincial government. Funding will not be available for enrolment growth beyond that target. However, if enrolment falls below -3 per cent (the lower end of the corridor) provincial operating grants will fall, but the school won’t lose all of that per-student funding.

Critics have suggested this new model will help smaller northern universities, such as Laurentian, where enrolment is expected to slide, but that it will hurt larger southern schools, like Western, where enrolment growth is expected to continue. One thing appears certain, though: it won’t move Ontario up the provincial rankings for PSE funding.

What to do? My only suggestion is to press your local candidate for further information on their PSE policies. As I’ve said, elections are full of uncertainty, and on this score, the 2018 race won’t disappoint.

James Compton is an associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. He is president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and a former president of UWOFA