TORONTO — Ontario should end its post-secondary tuition freeze and increase per-student funding to its universities and colleges, a government-commissioned report has found.
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 has frozen fees at that level since then.
The freeze has forced post-secondary institutions to increase their dependence on international student tuition, which is considerably higher than for domestic students.
The report released Wednesday by an external expert panel said ending the tuition freeze and boosting per-student funding would greatly help post-secondary institutions.
"A foundational recommendation of the panel, if implemented, would increase direct provincial support for colleges and universities, providing for both more money per student and more students," the report said.
The Council of Ontario Universities has said those institutions receive the lowest amount of operating grant funding per full-time student of all the provinces. The level in Ontario is $8,647 compared to a Canadian average of $12,215 in 2020-21, the council said earlier this year.
Before agreeing to any tuition increases, Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop said she needs to ensure those institutions are operating as efficiently as possible.
"It’s my expectation that we will work with post-secondary institutions to create greater efficiencies in operations, program offerings and sustainability of the sector," Dunlop wrote in a statement Wednesday.
She said that work with colleges and universities will take place "in the weeks ahead."
The report, titled "Ensuring Financial Sustainability for Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector," also recommended sufficient financial aid for students based on need.
It found the institutions' dependence on international students, especially the province's colleges, needs to be recognized as a "financial risk."
"Data shared with the panel confirm that colleges and universities have come to rely more and more on international student tuition fees to the point where the revenue from this source is fundamental to the sector’s financial sustainability," the report said.
"This increased reliance raises the post-secondary institutions' risk exposure."
The panel also recommended a one-time "significant" adjustment in per-student funding due to skyrocketing inflation over the past few years. It additionally recommended a government commitment to "more modest annual adjustments over the next three to five years."
The panel recommended a one-time tuition fee increase of five per cent effective next September, followed by tuition fee increases of two per cent or the rate of inflation, whichever is greater.
Colleges Ontario, which represents the province's colleges called the report "a good first step."
"Creating more opportunities for students to pursue rewarding careers greatly depends on getting this right," president Marketa Evans said in a statement.
"Ontario’s students and businesses deserve nothing less."
Ontario's universities called for government action immediately.
"The situation is becoming increasingly untenable, as universities can no longer continue to absorb cuts and freezes amidst rising inflation and costs, and many are facing deficits, with the growing risk of insolvencies," Steve Orsini, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, wrote in a statement.
He said the demand for universities continues to grow. Applications have increased by 11 per cent over the past two years and are forecast to grow significantly over the next several years.
Higher Education Strategy Associates called the report's recommendations a "modest step in the right direction."
"It doesn't quite undo all the real cuts that have occurred under the Ford government," said Alex Usher, president of the strategy firm, who has long called for more provincial funding for post-secondary institutions.
"This was as bold a move as the panel felt it could take and still be taken seriously by the government."
He called Dunlop's initial response to the report "tepid."
"I suspect one of the reasons it's tepid is because the government never asked them to look at funding, they asked them to look at tuition," he said. "And so what the blue ribbon panel did was they looked at the overall situation and said, 'look, the root problem here is that government funding in Ontario is ridiculously low.'"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2023.
Liam Casey and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press