‘They’ve gutted the system’: Strike put spotlight on Ontario’s college funding

Ontario’s college faculty strike has cast a new spotlight on an old issue — the question of whether this province is adequately funding its public colleges.

The union that represents 12,000 faculty across Ontario says colleges are relying too heavily on contract employees to save money and wants to see more full-time teachers hired across the system.

The colleges’ bargaining agent has says there simply isn’t enough money in the system to do that.

“You’re going to add these costs to your business model and somebody’s going to have to pay for it,” said Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council.

“Students will pick up a portion, and I suspect the taxpayer will, because of the way our funding model works.”

The funding model used to put most of the burden for funding colleges on the government, but has turned in recent decades more to tuition fees as a funding source. In 1992, colleges received 77 per cent of their funding from the government, according to the Canadian Federation of Students — today, the organization says, it’s less than 50 per cent.   

“What’s happening in Ontario is critical underfunding for years,” said Kevin MacKay, a member of OPSEU’s college faculty bargaining team. “They’ve gutted the system in terms of funding and they’ve tried to run it on this completely flexible, precarious (employment) model, and the cracks are showing everywhere.”

About one-third of teachers in Ontario colleges are full-time, compared to two-thirds who are contract and don’t work full-time, according to the College Employer Council.

Only full-time teachers are paid for out-of-class work such as prep and meeting with students, which means contract staff work for free if they do the same. That’s a situation that hurts the quality of students’ education, MacKay said.

“I’ve seen students get less and less time with the professor,” he said. “I know that the more contact we have with students the more likely they are to succeed.”

Numbers from the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development show that tuition fees have increased much more over the past seven years than government funding to colleges has. In 2010-11, average regular full-time domestic tuition fees were $2,311. By 2016-17, they had increased 23.71 per cent to $2,859.

In its 2017 budget submission to the province, advocacy group Colleges Ontario wrote that, when adjusted for inflation, per-student revenues from both tuition and government grants have declined every year since 2007.

The government does not tie its operating grants to colleges with inflation, which can sometimes mean its increases fall below the rate of inflation.

From 2002 to 2017, operating grants increased by 45 per cent, to $6,624 per domestic student from $4,600 in 2002-03. The rate of inflation for that period in Ontario was 30.8 per cent.

However, the rate at which operating grants increased slowed significantly post-2010. Increases from 2002 to 2010 equaled 36 per cent, with inflation at 16.5 per cent, while increases from 2010 to 2017 were 5.9 per cent, below inflation at 8.91 per cent.

The office of Deb Matthews, minister of advanced education and skills development, declined a request for an interview but said the ministry is working with colleges.

“The financial sustainability of the college sector is very important to our government,” wrote Tanya Blazina, a spokesperson for the ministry, in an email. “We have taken major steps to transform the postsecondary sector and to work toward sustainability.”

In 2015, a review resulted in a new formula, which allocates moneys based on three criteria:

• Enrolment;

• Performance, based on annual surveys and local circumstances; and

• Special purpose grants for issues such as improving access for Indigenous students or those with disabilities.

As of 2017, the funding ratio between tuition revenue and operating grants was about 1:1, Blazina said, although she did not provide the precise percentage breakdown.

“It is important to note that a sizeable proportion of tuition revenue is also supplied through government grants,” Blazina wrote. About half of college students are receiving “free tuition,” meaning the grants they get from student aid exceeds the cost of their fees, she said.

Although the province doesn’t tie college operating grant increases to inflation, it does index Ontario Student Assistance Program living supports to inflation as well as tuition supports to average tuition hikes.

“While the government has not indexed college operating grants to inflation, over the past 15 years it has made substantial investments in the sector with per-student funding growth exceeding increases that would have been driven by inflation alone,” she wrote.

Devyn Barrie is a journalism student at Algonquin College.

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