Ontario’s Catholic colleges and universities fear a province-mandated tuition freeze — the second year running — will increase financial strain on them. Photo courtesy King’s University College

Ontario Catholic colleges feel effect of tuition freeze

  • May 20, 2021

An Ontario-wide tuition freeze is bad news for the Catholic colleges and universities allied with the province’s large public universities, says the chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of Canada.

“The bottom line is: yes,” St. Jerome’s University president and vice chancellor Peter Meehan told The Catholic Register when asked if the freeze would be bad for Catholic colleges. “Most of us get flow-through funding from the public university based at least in part on tuition for enrolments. The tuition freeze has meant significant losses for the public universities.”

The Ontario government announced a second year of tuition freezes April 30, following its 2019-20 across-the-board 10-per-cent tuition cut.

“The financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic further underscores the need to keep college and university programs affordable,” Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano said in a release. “By freezing tuition our government is continuing to reduce the financial strain on families’ pocketbooks.”

Before the 2019 cuts, Ontario tuition fees were the highest in Canada. The province now claims undergraduate tuitions in Ontario are the third highest and graduate school tuitions the second highest.

But tuition fee freezes and cuts are no different from overall provincial funding cuts come budget time, said King’s University College principal David Malloy.

Malloy compares Saskatchewan’s provincial university funding — Malloy was a professor and administrator at the University of Regina before coming to King’s — to the funding universities in Ontario receive from Queen’s Park. Where Saskatchewan universities pull in 50 per cent or more of their funding from the province, Ontario schools can count on the province for less than one-quarter of their budgets.

On a per-student basis, Ontario’s post-secondary funding is the lowest in Canada, with the province kicking in $8,959 per student in 2018-19, versus a national average of $12,396. University operating grants per student have declined 12.6 per cent in real terms since 2002-03, according to the Council of Ontario Universities.

“The Ontario system, relative to other provinces, does not provide us with the funding that other jurisdictions do,” said Malloy.

Sitting on a $70 million-a-year budget, rising enrolments, an excellent donor base and access to federal research funding, Malloy isn’t complaining.

“We’re very good at managing what we’ve received. King’s is a destination of choice. I can’t really cry the blues too loudly,” he said.

But a polarized future of a few rich schools and a lot of poor universities is a possibility, Malloy said.

“I don’t think that’s far-fetched,” he said.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations warn of “chronic underfunding of Ontario’s public university system.”

“Per-student funding for universities will drop even further, as institutions will be expected to increase enrolment over the next three years without any additional money. Meanwhile, the government’s reckless performance-based funding framework threatens additional cuts, further destabilizing a sector already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and jeopardizing our economic recovery,” the Confederation said in reaction to Ontario’s March budget.

Last year, a Statistics Canada investigation into university funding across the country found schools at risk because of falling international enrolments as COVID closes borders. Between 2008-09 and 2017-18, international students went from 7.9 per cent of the national student body to 14.7 per cent of all university students. With an average tuition of $32,041 in 2020, five times the average $6,610 charged to Canadian students, international students account for 40 per cent of all tuition funds collected — $4 billion.

“Projection scenarios, built on trends in (international) student permit holders, show that Canadian universities could possibly lose between $377 million (or 0.8 per cent of projected revenues) and $3.4 billion (or 7.5 per cent of projected revenues) in 2020-21, depending on the size of the reduction in international student enrolments and the subsequent loss in tuition fees,” said the Statistics Canada analysis released last September.

The national and provincial numbers don’t necessarily translate into a crisis for all universities, said Malloy.

“We planned on a (tuition) freeze,” he said. “I wish we were receiving stronger funding from the province. Our hands are tied to some extent. But King’s is doing very well.”

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