Transparent and accountable

The need to modernize university funding in Ontario

On March 12, 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced it is launching consultations on modernizing the funding formula for the province’s universities. Under the current funding model, which was developed in 1967, the allocation of public funds to universities is based almost entirely on enrolment numbers. More than 90 per cent of a university’s public funding, in fact, is determined entirely by the number of students enrolled at that university.

It’s a matter of speculation as to whether the Ministry has specific outcomes in mind for these consultations, but it does seem clear that Reza Moridi, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, would like to see a move away from enrolment-based funding. At a March 16 question-and-answer session with members of OSSTF/FEESO District 35, Universities and Colleges, the Minister said, “We are changing from a funding formula based on the number of students to a formula based on other parameters.”

Presumably those “other parameters” will be determined by the consultations, but Moridi explained that enrolment-based funding was no longer equitable, given the diverse characteristics of Ontario’s universities. “We have the University of Toronto with almost 85,000 students, and then we have Algoma University with only about 1,000 students—smaller than many high schools in terms of student population. But each of these universities requires a president. Each of them requires vice-presidents and other administrative personnel. So there are certain expenses that an institution has to bear whether it’s big or it’s small. And that’s why we believe it’s time to revise the funding formula after almost 50 years.”

OSSTF/FEESO represents the support staff at five Ontario universities—Algoma University, Brock University, the University of Guelph, the University of Ottawa and Wilfrid Laurier University—and has been calling for improvements to university funding for years. Chief among the concerns is that the level of public funding for Ontario’s universities is simply not adequate, regardless of the formula through which that funding is allocated.

Ontario, in fact, ranks dead last among Canadian provinces in per-student funding, and for the first time in the province’s history, universities are now relying more on student tuition than on government funding to cover operating costs.

It’s no surprise that Ontario university students pay the highest tuition fees in Canada. Alastair Woods, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario, is skeptical that the consultations announced by the Ministry will do very much to change that. “It’s likely that any change to the funding model will be all about trying to accomplish more with fewer resources, and that won’t build a world-class system,” says Woods. “You can change the mechanism a million ways, but it won’t matter if the funding doesn’t keep pace with inflation and with covering the real cost of postsecondary education.”

OSSTF/FEESO leaders in the university sector would agree that, whatever kind of formula is adopted, it’s crucial the government commit to increased and stable funding. But there are other improvements to the post secondary funding model for which OSSTF/FEESO has consistently lobbied, and those improvements are mostly related to the current lack of transparency, accountability and meaningful public oversight when it comes to the way universities spend the funding they receive. OSSTF/ FEESO members provide a wide array of important services to students on the campuses where they work, including counselling, academic and technical support, funding assistance and procurement,

security, maintenance and much more. It has been OSSTF/ FEESO’s experience, even during periods of growing student enrollment, that funding for these support structures often remains static or decreases even as new management and senior administrative positions—positions that do not directly support student achievement—are created at a pace that sometimes seems relentless. That is why OSSTF/FEESO has always called for consistent, dedicated funding for all post-secondary institutions to ensure that quality student services are maintained year over year.

But targeting funds to specific services would solve only part of a much larger accountability and oversight problem. Although they fall under provincial jurisdiction, universities have always functioned as autonomous institutions, and are largely treated that way by the government, even when it comes to how they spend the public money that the government provides.

There are surprisingly few checks and balances in place to ensure universities spend public money wisely or in a way that benefits students. Each university has a board of governors or a similar body that approves major expenditures and ostensibly provides oversight on the public’s behalf. But the quality of those boards can be uneven, and there are few if any guarantees that a board will include members who have specific expertise in the administration of a university. It’s the perception of many local OSSTF/FEESO leaders at Ontario universities that the boards of governors at their institutions seldom serve as anything more than a rubber stamp for the initiatives of university presidents and senior administrators.

In the current world of enrolment-based funding, which creates fierce competition between universities for new students, those initiatives are often sold to a board of governors as necessary expenditures to boost student recruitment. They might include impressive new multi-million-dollar academic or research facilities or a massive increase in funding for an institution’s varsity sports programs. Boards often approve these kinds of expenditures without seeing any proper research or evidence that the initiatives to which they are committing millions of dollars will produce the desired outcomes, and we have seen more than one university spend its way into financial difficulty through initiatives that ultimately had very little to do with providing a quality post-secondary education for its students.

At Brock University last year, 36 OSSTF/FEESO members were laid off after the university announced a deficit of close to $15-million. There had been no precipitous drop in enrolment leading up to this stunning announcement, so how did this deficit suddenly appear? Norm Westbury, President of the District 35 Bargaining Unit at Brock, says, “A major contributing factor was that the university simply went ahead with building facilities without ensuring the proper funding was in place for those projects. It put the university into a $15-million deficit and precipitated a major layoff. So now we have more buildings, and in many cases we don’t have enough support staff members to staff those buildings.”

When the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced the funding formula consultations in March, “increased transparency and accountability” was included as one of the principles to be achieved through the process. Whatever shape a new funding formula takes, a significant enhancement of public oversight, along with increased funding targeted to student needs, will be essential to creating and maintaining a post-secondary system that properly serves the interests of both students and the broader community.

About Michael Young
Michael Young is the editor of Education Forum and education-forum.ca.

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