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Universities don’t matter to politicians

If institutions want buy-in from governments and taxpayers alike, they must sell a better vision


Ontario’s university professors are at wit’s end.

After five years of tuition cuts and funding freezes, amid rising enrolments and soaring inflation, the best and brightest on campus are still puzzling over a political Rubik’s Cube that defies any quick solution.

As part of a recent panel hosted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), I listened to unionized professors lay out the cold math of declining cash flows. The other presentations were passionate, rallying the troops by recounting the impact on overstretched teachers and underserved students who deserve better.

The title of the panel: “Why publicly funded universities matter.”

My role was to be the bearer of bad news.

Universities don’t matter to politicians — not to this Progressive Conservative government, nor the Liberal government that preceded it. For the funding freeze of the last decade long predated Doug Ford’s Tories.

When the current premier came to power, he targeted the ivory tower by cutting it down to size. He slashed tuition by 10 per cent, then froze it for five years while universities and colleges lost more than 20 per cent of their purchasing power.

How can university faculty cope with the anti-elitist populism that has made them easy pickings for Ford? They could lobby the government with PowerPoints and spreadsheets showing how higher education powers the innovation economy (a math professor on our panel brought a persuasive slide deck).

But the politicians wouldn’t pay attention to the presentations.

Full disclosure: I’m a senior fellow at Toronto Metropolitan University and the Munk School of Public Policy at U of T, so I see and hear for myself the distress on campus. But it’s also my job to peer through the lens that politicians are looking through.

Professors matter little to politicians because they matter little to students and parents. An Abacus poll for the Star showed the governing Tories have 43 per cent support, compared to the Liberals and NDP tied at 23 and 24 last month.

People are clearly not mad at Ford for defunding universities. Many doubt that universities offer value for money, or they think professors are paid too much and don’t work hard enough to educate students.

When Ford came to power, he declared war against universities.

First, he ordered campuses to codify new policies fostering free speech (especially controversial ideas) as a counterweight to socalled cancel culture. Now, his government is demanding that universities rein in hate speech (or hostile slogans) that drag down cultural or religious groups.

It’s hard to have it both ways. Next, Ford started cutting and freezing funding, which eventually adds up to defunding. Today, universities are cash-starved and he seems ready to bail them out just a bit.

That’s the backdrop for the Ford government’s hostility to higher education: Where’s the value for money?

With university students and professors more often behind a megaphone or microphone than a microscope — petitioning or protesting — institutions of higher learning are sinking lower in the public’s estimation and esteem. Whether in pure or applied sciences, social sciences or social work, humanities or engineering, the decline in critical thinking has increased outside criticism.

Today’s crisis was inflicted by governments that don’t know any better. And self-inflicted by educational institutions that should know better.

Against that backdrop, the deep thinkers on all sides of the debate are searching for solutions that are self-evidently self-serving.

Ford’s right-leaning government conjured up a blue-ribbon panel of post-secondary experts that made its recommendations to the government last month. It stated the obvious (a fiscal squeeze), and restated the remedy (more money, more efficiency) in its report, “Ensuring financial sustainability for Ontario’s post-secondary sector.”

Days later, another report from the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives focused mostly on money: “Restoring public funding to Ontario’s universities.”

A couple of days later, another report from the Council of Ontario Universities — representing campus presidents — looked at the spending side with a title that sent a calculated message to government: “Driving greater efficiencies to deliver on student success economic growth.”

Each report asks and answers its own question based on its own favoured premise — sustainability, money or efficiency. How to reconcile these three perspectives seemingly at cross-purposes?

At the conference of faculty associations, I told the professors that I didn’t purport to have all the answers, just the questions. But the best question came from one teacher on the floor trying to learn lessons from the latest crisis.

Think of it as a thought experiment: What does a healthy, fully funded higher education system look like, exactly? Would we get extra value from more money, or merely more of the same?

The beauty of efficiency is that it can create (fiscal) space for creativity, as opposed to just survivability. After so many years of crisis rhetoric — however justified — it’s easy to lose sight of the quest for future excellence as opposed to treading water today.

If universities and colleges want buy-in from governments and taxpayers alike, they need to sell us on a more inspirational vision — stronger values, better value for money, and a higher return from a larger investment in higher education.





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