Some Thoughts on the Ontario Budget

I’ll leave it to others to talk about what the budget means for Ontario’s unions; I’m more interested in what it means for Ontario’s postsecondary students and the people who teach them.

Because I think the implications of the budget are important, I don’t think that an analysis of it should be left in the hands of amateurs.  For that reason, please correct me if you understand how to read budgets and balance sheets better than I.

To start, I note that, at the very top of the printed budget, the government promises:

20,000 new student spaces in colleges and universities, starting in 2010–11, through a new annual investment of $310 million.

Further down the page, the government points out that this new funding is…

…in addition to providing $155 million in 2009–10 to fully support enrolment growth at colleges and universities, including $65 million announced [in] Fall 2009.

In addition to that funding, the new Open Ontario plan previously outlined in the Throne Speech finds implementation in details of the budget designed to improve accessibility of and transferability within the postsecondary system, including the government’s stated commitment to:

  • aggressively promoting Ontario postsecondary schools abroad to encourage the world’s best students to study here, settle here and help Ontario build a stronger economy [discussed here, here, and here];
  • improving students’ ability to navigate Ontario’s postsecondary system by providing additional resources to support the implementation of a credit transfer system; and
  • creating the new Ontario Online Institute, which will bring the best professors from Ontario’s postsecondary institutions into the homes of those who want to pursue higher learning.

I can’t yet decide which (if any) of the above three innovations will be funded out of the aforementioned $310 million.  The Ottawa Citizen suggests that their funding might come from a different budget item, since it claims that the…

$310 Million [is the cost] of opening 20,000 new spaces in colleges and universities this september.

And, if Ontario comes under fire from armchair critics about the fact that it has the lowest per-student government funding of any province’s system, the Liberals are quick to remind us that — since they were elected in 2003…

  • More than 120,000 additional students are attending college and university, a 31 per cent increase over 2002–03.
  • University per-student operating funding is 27 per cent higher and college per-student operating funding is 44 per cent higher in 2008–09 compared with 2002–03.

And, to be fair, it probably is reasonable to assume that the postsecondary system (and perhaps the province itself) is still trying to recover from the underfunding of the Harris years, and, in turn, the reduced transfer payments during the Chretien era.

But let’s take a moment to break the numbers down as best we can, to get a sense of the proposed increase in funding, and the degree to which its impact will be offset by the proposed increase in the number of students:

Proposed Changes in Funding:

The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universites’ 2009-10 financial estimates cite an estimated operating expense for the Postsecondary Education program of $5,097,431,200, out of a total Ministry operating expense of $6,506,342,814.  And, until somebody with a better understanding of financial statements instructs me otherwise, I’ll assume that the former is the figure to which the additional $310 million would be added.

If the figures are correct, and if the $310 million is earmarked for creating new spaces in colleges and universities (as opposed to, say, “aggressively promoting Ontario postsecondary schools”, internationally), then that money would consistitute a 6.08% increase in funding for the operating costs of Colleges and Universities

That’s a considerable one-year increase, by any measure.  But let’s remember that at the same time the postsecondary schools are being asked to effect a considerable (20,000) increase in the number of full-time students.

Proposed Changes in Student Numbers:

In fact, I have a hard time finding out the total number of students enrolled in Ontario’s Colleges and Universities.   The closest that I can come are the 2007 figures of 354,000 FTEs at Ontario’s universities and 183,000 at Ontario’s colleges (for a total of 537,000) , which were provided in a 2009 report by Ian Clark and Greg Moran, from the University of Ottawa.

Taking that figure, an additional 20,000 full-time spots would account for an additional 3.7% full-time students to be served by Ontario’s postsecondary schools.

The Results?

If these numbers hold up (and there are many reasons why they may be incorrect or out-of-date), then Ontario’s colleges and universities will be given an additional 6.08% of operational funding, to accommodate an additional 3.7% of students.  That suggests that the new students wouldn’t necessarily exacerbate the system’s underfunding, but it also indicates that the new funding won’t be enough to significantly relieve that underfunding, either.  After demands for new student spaces are accounted for, it appears that the per-student funding would only increase by a net 2.38%, systemwide.

And that projection itself depends on some optimistic assumptions, in my layman’s opinion.  Most significantly, that not a dollar of the $310 million goes to:

  • Ministry expenses
  • Capital expenses (like infrastructure or maintenance)
  • Promotion, including international promotion
  • Added, atypical expenses that would accompany an influx of international students
  • The formation of an Ontario Online Institute
  • The costs of implementing improved credit transfer systems and/or increased standardization of credentials, to promote transferability and international student applications

Every single dollar that goes to any of the above represents a dollar that will not go to alleviating an underfunded system, and may only result in even more fiscal strain on the system itself.

E-mail me at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com to correct any errors of fact or interpretation.

 

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